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Gandhi aloof in cabinet reshuffle

By Graham Cooke - posted Friday, 9 November 2012


Cabinet reshuffles in India are not normally headline makers anywhere outside the country, but given Australia's warming relationship with New Delhi, and the possibility of more significant changes there in the near future, the one that has just taken place should be of more than just passing interest.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced his list of appointments, widely seen as a final refreshment of his Ministry before elections in 2014, the name everybody was expecting to see was absent, backbencher Rahul Gandhi having apparently declined any appointment.

"I would have been happy to include Rahul in the Cabinet, but he has other preoccupations in the party," said a perplexed Singh, announcing the reshuffle.

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Yet Gandhi is still widely expected to be leading the ruling Congress Party into the election - Singh while highly popular is 80 and in poor health - and this latest development means he would do so without ever having held a Government appointment.

The reason for his expected elevation is, of course, his name and family background. Gandhi is the fifth generation of a family that has dominated the Congress Party - and Indian politics generally - for more than a century. His great great grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was prominent in the campaign for independence from British rule at the beginning of the 20th century. Motilal's son, Jawaharlal, was India's first Prime Minister after independence and Jawaharlal's only daughter, Indira Gandhi, became the first and so far only woman to lead India.

After her assassination by her own bodyguards in 1984, her son, Rajiv, succeeded her as Prime Minister. His policy of intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War proved fatal for him as he was killed by a female Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam suicide bomber in 1991.

These tragedies do not seem to have dampened the Gandhis' enthusiasm for power – or the adoration of their name in Indian politics. Rajiv's widow, Italian-born Sonia, wields considerable power behind the scenes as the President of the Indian National Congress working, it has been assumed, to install son, Rahul, as the fourth member of the dynasty to occupy the most powerful office in the land.

And yet Rahul seems ambivalent about advancing himself beyond his current position as the Member for Amethi in the Lok Sabha (Parliament) and is showing no sign of undergoing any kind of apprenticeship that would see him prepared for running the country. He has, however, been elevated to the somewhat ambiguous position of a general secretary of the party, a position that might leave him as second-in-command to his mother although there are other general secretaries with specific responsibilities for various party functions.

This is causing a degree of angst in the Congress ranks. Singh's reshuffle, resulting in part from the loss of one of Congress' coalition partners, has resulted in the promotion of a number of new, younger faces, and there is a feeling among some party insiders that if any one of them performs well over the next few months, they and not the 42-year-old Gandhi, will be in the line of succession.

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This has been firmly denied by Rahul Gandhi's biographer, Aarthi Ramachandran. "It's an unspoken rule in the Congress Party that nobody can, or will, be allowed to outshine Rahul Gandhi among the younger set," Mr Ramachandran said.

However, others are less sure. "He has no track record in governance. We don't know what his ideas are on the kind of economic policies India should follow," one newspaper editorialised.

"Will he lean towards his mother's socialist views or be more market friendly? The sooner India knows what he thinks and how he can help the country, the sooner its people can help him find a title that suits the man."

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.


He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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