Debating India

Sonia and Manmohan, party and government

Saturday 18 June 2005, by KHARE*Harish

When Manmohan Singh sees off Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the airport, he is merely acknowledging that though he heads the United Progressive Alliance Government, he remains a Congressman.

IN DECEMBER 1955 two Soviet leaders, Nikolai A. Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, arrived in India on an official visit. Bulganin was designated "Premier" in his capacity as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, while Khrushchev had succeeded Joseph Stalin as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On the two leaders’ first day in New Delhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hosted a dinner in their honour. When Nehru arrived at Hyderabad House he was horrified to discover that Bulganin had been given the pride of place at the banquet table, across from the Indian Prime Minister, whereas the party boss, Khrushchev was placed a few seats down.

The next day, Prime Minister Nehru wrote a letter to the Chief of Protocol, I.S. Chopra, himself a distinguished foreign service officer. In a masterly mini-treatise on power, Nehru wrote: "Had there been a tsar of All the Russias, his name would have been Khrushchev, not Bulganin. Realities of power and authority must be known to our Chief of Protocol; protocol follows power and not vice-versa."

This little episode is recalled in the context of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nitpicking over the presumed "breach of protocol" when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to the airport to see off Congress president Sonia Gandhi before she left for Russia. The criticism can be dismissed as part of the BJP’s months-old strategy, aimed at chipping away at Dr. Singh’s USP, that is, his prestige and credibility. Hence, the recurring theme song of "Dr. Singh-is-the-weakest-Prime-Minister."

Party-government relationship

The BJP’s calculations apart, there is a larger question of the nature of relationship between the party and the government. Since Nehru’s days it has been an accepted proposition that the ruling party would not interfere in the government’s day-to-day functioning. As early as 1948, Nehru rejected the then Congress president, Acharya Kriplani’s demand that the party’s views should be sought in all decisions. Prime Minister Nehru had the support of Sardar Patel in telling off the Congress president that while the party was entitled to lay down the broad principles and guidelines, it could not possibly be granted a say in the government’s day-to-day affairs. Nehru’s stature as the tallest leader as well as a competent administrator helped settle the debate in favour of the government.

Yet Nehru and all his Ministers drew their organisational identity and political legitimacy from being members of the Congress. All the major policy milestones during the Nehru era were first proposed in the Congress forums; for example, the linguistic reorganisation of the States was suggested by an AICC committee (the JVP committee - consisting of Nehru, Patel and Pattabhi Sittaramaya; the Second Five-Year Plan was inspired by the April 1955 AICC session at Avadi where the party gave a call for "socialistic pattern of society"; the Kamraj Plan, which resulted in the most dramatic Cabinet reshuffle so far, was a party ploy.

The dynamic tension between the party and the government has generally been sorted out in favour of the government by inducting the senior party functionaries in the Cabinet (e.g., L.K. Advani in 1998) or by anointing a lightweight as party president (U.N. Debhar in the Congress in the mid-1950s; Kushabhau Thakre, Bangaru Laxman, Jana Krishnamurthy, and Venkaiah Naidu in the BJP between 1998-2004). The government has a definite advantage over the party in terms of its ability to command resources such as patronage, authority, information and coercion. A Prime Minister ipso facto stands very tall, and certainly much taller than all his colleagues, in or out of government.

Nonetheless, the principle of parliamentary system of government does not negate the fact that the government of the day is also a party government.

The party is larger than the individual, whatever be his or her exalted status in the government, as Mr. Advani discovered to his cost recently.

Dr. Singh is Prime Minister because the Congress leadership nominated him to be the Prime Minister, and it would be untenable for anyone to propose that either the Prime Minister or the Congress should ever lose sight of this fact.

Ms. Gandhi has made it a habit of coming to the airport to see off Dr. Singh every time he goes out on an official visit. This is her way of telling her party colleagues and other senior Ministers to be respectful towards the Prime Minister. Now, if Dr. Singh extends to his party president the courtesy of seeing her off at the airport, he is merely acknowledging that even though he may be heading the United Progressive Alliance Government, he remains a Congressman.

The Prime Minister’s media adviser got it right when he explained: "The Prime Minister can never be a prisoner of protocol. He is a free man in a free country. There is nothing wrong if he wishes to go and see off his party president."

The Prime Minister’s media adviser can always cite Nehru’s classic words: protocol follows power and not vice-versa.

See online : The Hindu

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