SUJAN DUTTA AND RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
New Delhi, May 7: Pranab Mukherjee simply loves the attention he can get when the boss is away. He would hate it if Manmohan Singh, who was appointed RBI governor during Pranab’s tenure as finance minister, were to be described as his boss, though. But Congress sources clarified the defence minister unhesitatingly shows the deference due to the Prime Minister and rises and addresses him as “Mr Prime Minister” in cabinet meetings.
The fact remains that when Manmohan was away for the Hannover date with Angela Merkel in the last week of April, Pranab was the acting Prime Minister. And what a time for him to be acting as the chief executive! No Prime Minister and no foreign minister but Nepal on the boil. Pranab emerged as the pivot around whom New Delhi was reshaping its policy towards its closest neighbour.
But Pranab was the pivot and not the shaper of the policy. To tune the policy, his trusted lieutenant was to a large measure Sitaram Yechury, CPM’s politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. After the Prime Minister’s belated and misplaced faith in Karan Singh, Yechury played emissary and trouble-shooter.
Congress sources stressed Pranab, always an efficient executor, faithfully carried out the Prime Minister’s mandate with not a step out of place. And Manmohan apparently had the confidence that his defence minister would not overstep his mandate or challenge him, now or in future. Sources described him as a “major source of strength for the PM”.
Like Pranab, Arjun Singh too basks in the attention he can get but not for the same reasons. He might never have appointed Manmohan to a post but according to sources, the human resource development minister was still unprepared to accept him as the first among equals.
Arjun reportedly keeps sitting when the Prime Minister enters. Although his frail health was cited as the reason by some, Manmohan’s loyalists alleged he is on his feet to greet Rahul Gandhi.
So, when Arjun went off at a tangent and took a view at variance with the Congress and the Centre on the Narmada agitation, eyebrows were raised. “Truth to be told, he has never played it straight,” admitted a senior Congressman.
After a visit to Indore last month, Arjun counselled the Madhya Pradesh Congress to take a “critical” look at the rehabilitation of the Narmada oustees and start an “andolan” if things were not looking good. This despite the Prime Minister setting up a monitoring committee to oversee rehabilitation in the affected states.
Unlike his advocacy of an OBC quota in educational institutions, including IITs and IIMs — which provoked mixed reactions in the Congress — on Narmada, Arjun found himself on a stickier wicket.
Sources said his response was doubtless prompted by the perception that Sonia was sympathetic to Medha Patkar and the plight of the oustees. But ranged against this was the political expediency of “playing to the gallery” on Narmada, especially after the BJP chief ministers of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh went to town saying the people and farmers would be deprived of river water if the dam’s height was curtailed.
Ahmed Patel, Sonia’s political secretary, prodded Narendra Modi to ensure his Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chauhan would get cracking with the rehabilitation so that work on the dam didn’t stop.
The Congress’s view of Arjun was while his “pro-people” interventions had a countervailing effect on the Prime Minister’s “excessive preoccupation” with growth figures and the stock market’s health, his motive was not always clear.
With Pranab, they were clear he was an implementer of his boss’s orders with no other apparent agenda. Once bitten, twice shy, was the party’s pronouncement of Pranab, recalling how he was “disgraced” for trying to take on Rajiv Gandhi.