Will Recent Political Changes Help Congress Win in 2014?
By Prabhu Chawla *
It’s a perfect picture of perfect politics—a Sikh Prime Minister accompanied by a Christian defence minister and a Dalit home minister. When the Monsoon Session of Parliament starts this week, an erudite Sikh economist and a former Dalit police inspector—the new home minister—would occupy the first two seats in the first row of the Treasury benches. It will also have Defence Minister A K Antony. The two Houses of Parliament are presided over by a Dalit—Meira Kumar (Lok Sabha)—and an articulate Muslim—Hamid Ansari (Rajya Sabha).
Never since Independence have the top legislative and executive posts been held by a combination of minorities and socially backward leaders. It was not mere political accident that led to the creation of a hierarchy, which was heavily loaded against the upper classes who always claimed to be born rulers. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi, the Gandhi Parivar was the darling of the minorities and the Dalits. It lost most of this support after the 1984 Sikh massacre and the Babri Masjid demolition.
Ever since Sonia took over the reins of the Congress in 1998, the party has been undergoing an invisible social transformation. Both Indira and Rajiv believed in sloganism. However, for the past 14 years, Sonia has been silently working according to plan to change the social character of the government and the party. She may have allowed the urban elite to dominate the Council of Ministers, but her long-term agenda to create and promote new leaders from the minorities and Dalits is finally acquiring shape. Ignoring the high-voltage attack on Manmohan Singh’s paralysed government, she cocked a snook at her opponents by restoring the crucial finance Ministry to P Chidambaram. The new finance minister has been a prime target of the BJP for the past two years and has been dragged to various courts for his alleged role in 2G spectrum allocation.
Recently when she chose the affable Sushilkumar Shinde to fill the most sensitive post of the country as its 22nd home minister, netizens went after the Congress party and its leadership. They couldn’t digest the fact that someone like Shinde, who was held responsible for pushing half the country into darkness for several hours, was promoted before the nation got its electricity back. But Sonia and Manmohan opted for this trusted and experienced politician who always disarms his sworn enemies by a smile. Shinde is also being investigated for his role in the Adarsh scam, though he hasn’t been charged or made an accused in the case.
Shinde was not only made the home minister but was also appointed the Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha. For the first time in history, the ruling party will be led in the House by a Dalit, who will also attend all crucial government meetings. The Shinde Syndrome reflects yet another social transformation of the ruling establishment. He has replaced a Brahmin, Pranab Mukherjee. He will sit next to the Prime Minister which also settles the issue of who is number two in the government. Shinde has been a chief minister, a party general secretary, a governor and a Union home minister. At 71, he is now the seniormost Congress leader in Parliament. He has pipped veterans like Kamal Nath, Kishore Chandra Deo and Chidambaram for the post of the Leader of the House. He will also be one of the two permanent members of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which approves the selection of all officers above the rank of joint secretary and the heads of all the PSUs. He will also participate in all Committees on Political Affairs and Security meetings as a full-fledged member.
It is not a coincidence that three of the five members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)—Manmohan Singh, Antony and Shinde—are from minority and Dalit communities. The other two—Chidambaram and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna—are from the south. Veerappa Moily, yet another former chief minister and an OBC from Karnataka, was given charge of the important power ministry. Only last year, he was stripped of the law ministry as he was found ineffective in dealing with judicial and legal matters. According to party insiders, the next reshuffle of both the government and the party will focus less on youth but more on caste, communities and loyalty.
The mini-exercise has sent a message with maximum social impact. It has changed the entire power equation within the government, as well as its complexion. Power is slowly slipping down south, away from the upper castes and north Indian leaders. The Congress is once again trying to acquire an umbrella party image by starting a social re-engineering process. It has realised that the only way to win elections is to share power, and not wealth, with those who go out and vote as communities. Their leaders will never pose a threat or challenge to the superiority and authority of the Hand that has always fed them.
* Prabhu Chawla is Editorial Director of The New Indian Express Group and hosts Teekhi Baat, a talk show on IBN7. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 2003 for his journalistic achievements over the years. In his 40 years as reporter and editor, he has written extensively on events that have changed the political course of India and the people who engineered them.