The countdown for an early demise of the UPA regime has begun. As of now, there is great secrecy over whether the National Advisory Council (NAC) will eventually be exempted from the purview of the ?office of profit,? whether Smt. Sonia Gandhi will return as chairperson if her cabinet rank is affected and the status of the body reduced. At the same time, the banishment of the Congress party from the Rai Bareilly bye-election, on account of the arrogance of the Gandhi family, will impact upon party functioning in future elections.
Smt. Gandhi may believe that her four lakh vote victory is a fitting rebuff to the party stalwarts whose oversight compelled her to resign on the office of profit issue. But in the long-term, it would be a serious mistake to project the ?family? as solely capable of attracting voters and solely responsible for delivering votes. Should the party now tacitly behave as if victory in the family pocket-borough must be translated into victory in the Assembly elections next year, Smt. Gandhi may find herself in difficulty. Indeed, there can be little doubt that mature Congressmen will harbour private reservations about the family'sstyle of functioning. This is bound to increase pressure on Shri Rahul Gandhi to take responsibility for reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, but anyone can see that the task is quite beyond him. He has little understanding of either the state or the nation, and party managers have to contradict him everytime he makes a spontaneous statement to the press.
Meanwhile, confusion over the NAC persists because Sonia Gandhi has fallen prey to her own psychology. She is addicted to what the Supreme Court called the ?receivables? of office, while dismissing Jaya Bachchan'spetition against dismissal from the Rajya Sabha. Equally, she is addicted to maintaining secrecy over the nature and quantum of ?receivables,? and may therefore hesitate to receive UPA munificence in full public view. It was only when the NDA came to power that we learnt that typists supposedly employed at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) were stationed at her residence. Senior IAS officers were deputed to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation from the time of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao; senior IAS officers had to be reverted to their parent ministries when she resigned as NAC chairperson.
What is more, once the office of profit controversy broke out and Smt. Gandhi had to re-contest her Lok Sabha seat, her office let it be known that she had resigned from all public bodies of which she was a member; they would not give the full details of these organisations. It would be in the fitness of things if, as part of the debate over the office of profit, the nation could be told the number of organisations Smt. Gandhi was a member of till recently; what kind of ?receivables? were attached to them; and what compelled her to give them up. We should also be told which offices she intends to return to, once they are exempted from the office of profit purview.
Refusal to return to the NAC would mean that Smt. Gandhi is still seething with rage at being made to resign to avoid certain disqualification from the Lok Sabha. This means she will loose the Cabinet rank that she enjoyed as NAC chairperson, something that is bound to irk such a status-conscious person. This will no doubt prompt her to seek new ways of overtly demonstrating power over the government, such as in the unseemly controversy over the Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN. This is bound to inject a dose of unnecessary instability in the Manmohan Singh regime, which cannot tailor India'sinternational obligations to the whims of Smt. Gandhi'scoterie.
Post-election, however, the real challenge facing the UPA Government will be Shri Arjun Singh'sbrinkmanship over the reservations for OBCs in higher education. It is already evident that the move has found little favour with the people at large, or even with the Congress party as a whole. The fact that President Kalam made the unprecedented move to call the HRD Minister to explain his position on the issue is powerful indication that Rashtrapati Bhavan does not approve of such brinkmanship.
Yet the issue may not be easy to handle. On the one hand, Dr. Manmohan Singh has created tremendous unease in corporate India by suggesting the possibility of reservations (affirmative action) in the private sector. Caste-based employment could bring the private sector to a grinding halt, and the corporate sector has made it clear that it would not buckle to Government pressure in this regard without a fight. It would be safe to say, therefore, that leading industrialists would be seriously rethinking their commitment to the longevity of this regime.
So far Smt. Sonia Gandhi has maintained her typical silence over the controversy?an attitude that is bringing diminishing returns. Unknown Congress stalwarts have virtually hushed up Shri Rahul Gandhi for saying that both sides had a point on the reservation issue. The Social Justice Ministry has aggravated matters by asking Government-funded NGOs to implement caste-based reservations, an issue that will not gel with this sector as most NGOs are de facto private businesses run by politicians and bureaucrats. By the time Smt. Gandhi untangles this mess, the bells may have tolled for the UPA coalition.