They are the odd couple of Indian politics. Even as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance completed two years in office this week, the focus has been as always on the two individuals at the helm: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi. It is a unique instance in Indian political history that a person considered more powerful than the head of government holds the party post.
A recent countrywide survey places Manmohan notches above Sonia as the best suited to lead the country, given his rise from village roots to study at Oxford, work at the World Bank, head the Reserve Bank of India, and become finance minister and now premier. But Manmohan knows who is the boss. Sonia owes her position to the powerful lineage of the Gandhi family and insights into Indian politics she acquired from living in the shadow of her late mother-in-law Indira Gandhi and husband Rajiv Gandhi, both former prime ministers.
When Sonia selected Manmohan in May 2004 to lead the country after the unexpected victory of the Congress party over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Cassandras did not give the relationship much of a chance. Yet it has endured, and most say it is stronger than ever. It has survived the intrigue and jealousies within the Congress party with stalwarts such as Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Human Resources Minister Arjun Singh who fancied being in Manmohan's position, once it became clear that Sonia was not interested in being in the direct line of fire given that her foreign origins (she is Italian-born) provide easy fodder for the opposition.
Pranab has since aligned himself with Manmohan to emerge as the second-most-powerful minister, while Arjun is said still to harbor misgivings and fancies his chances of becoming the president of the country, an honorary post but the highest public functionary under the constitution.
Indeed, the key difference lies in the personalities of Manmohan and Sonia. Sonia is conscious of her aggressive role as a leader rooted in the political realities of the country, where the majority is still poor, and people can be influenced by caste and religious affiliations. She knows as much as the late Indira did that image counts for a lot in the country. Rural India had an unbreakable emotional bond with Indira, despite her not having actually delivered the poor of their material miseries.
On the other hand, Manmohan, a trained economist, has never won a direct election (and has no aspiration to do so after losing his only attempt) and is a gentle, diplomatic visionary who looks at India through the definitions of excellence, growth, market forces, competition, foreign investment, exchange reserves and economic prosperity. These virtues take time to percolate down to the individual voter, who exercises his or her political preference based on his immediate situation rather than images on television of swanky private-sector offices or residential skyscrapers that may exist somewhere else in the country.
The BJP was rudely jolted about this reality in 2004 when it lost the elections on the basis of an "India Shining" campaign, thought up by stalwarts such as L K Advani and the late Pramod Mahajan. Such an India exists for many, but does not for many more, who still get to decide who will be the political party in power.
Indeed, observers point out that Sonia has allowed Manmohan complete freedom and trusts his judgment more than anybody else to pursue his dreams on subjects that may not impact the immediate political future of the Congress party, but will be good for the nation in the longer run. Thus Manmohan more or less has a free hand in pursuing economic reforms (though he constantly has to grapple with the left), Indo-US relations and the nuclear-energy pact, and Indo-Pak relations, aspects that the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee was also good at.
These issues go down well with the 300 million people in the affluent and middle classes who do not want the government to become an impediment as they go about their business of making more money in a globalized environment with a surfeit of multinational and service-sector job opportunities.
Sonia knows that the other 700 million who are not yet part of this growth scenario have to be addressed as well, or her party meets the fate of the BJP. Sonia's efforts have been in trying to ensure that her party's efforts/image do not become too distant from this bigger picture.
The one ramification has been the massive rural employment program that she has explained as an effort by the government to transfer resources from the richer sections to the needy. To meet the expenditures, the government has been looking to increase the tax base by bringing under the tax net more segments within the fast-growing service sector. This is seen as a necessary concomitant to growth with social justice in a democracy.
The government has also mooted a huge social-security plan for the unemployed, farmers and peasants that will entitle them to pensions, health care and other benefits.
Sonia has also been very careful to cultivate and buttress her image of standing for high morals in public life, as demonstrated by her resignation and re-election to parliament after the "office of profit" controversy recently.
The trickier aspect of this socio-economic re-engineering has been reservations (quotas) for backward castes who form 50% of the country's population and are key to government formation in the northern states often referred to as the "cow belt". The Congress has been eyeing the big state of Uttar Pradesh for a while now, as its political fortunes and seats in parliament are linked to its performance here. Sonia's son Rahul has made it a test case for his political initiation.
The government has, for the time being, put the issue of quotas in private sector firms on the back burner because of resistance by industry, but has decided to move ahead with reservations in centrally funded higher educational institutions, including prestigious medical, engineering and management colleges. Because of massive nationwide protests by higher-caste students (mostly from the middle class) who see their chances being sacrificed for narrow political gains, the government has decided to sugar-coat the quota pill with a commitment to increase proportionately the number of general-category seats.
It was initially believed that the quota gamble was a turf war between Manmohan and Arjun, who spoke about the proposals out of turn. But it has emerged that Arjun always had the blessings of Sonia. Some observers see a silver lining as quotas should result in the revamping of education infrastructure, but many are unhappy, as they want government affirmative action on ramping up primary education, the basis of competition at an equal footing.
Using reservation as a political instrument (with an added balm for the upper-caste students) could go either way for the Congress. The party could end up losing the middle votes and not win the backward castes, who have strong affiliations with regional parties. The strong constituency of middle-class voters who have always backed Manmohan's sagacity could be eroded. It could allow the BJP to spring back. Aggressive Hindutva is a ploy often used by the BJP. It worked in the '90s and boomeranged in 2004, so the party is already in a dilemma.
It has, thus, become apparent that for Sonia, political compulsions and survival come first. Manmohan (who was reportedly not happy with quotas initially) has quietly fallen in line, maintaining the sanctity of their relationship.