New Delhi: For nine years now, through all the UPA's ups and downs, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have enjoyed a near-perfect relationship. But last week, they hit a wall, perhaps for the first time. CNN-IBN learnt that the decision to remove Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar as cabinet ministers was resisted by the PM until pressure from Sonia finally forced them out.
In fact, even after Ashwani Kumar's resignation as Law Minister, the PM had wanted to issue a statement giving him a clean chit. The statement, drafted by the PMO said, "The PM asked the Law Minister to resign because of pressure from public perception. There was no wrong done and it was not an act of corruption. But the government asked him to resign as it didn't want governance and Parliament to be affected."
However, the congress party leadership vetoed the statement, and on Saturday, party spokespersons gave all credit for the removal to Sonia. Mid-level Congress leaders like Anil Shastri almost directly targeted the PM for failing to act against the ministers swiftly.
It was also learnt that Manmohan Singh, angered by his isolation, made his unhappiness clear to Congress leaders who met him on the weekend. A Congress core committee meeting was first postponed to Sunday, and then cancelled. And a fresh statement issued on Sunday evening claiming the decision to remove the ministers was taken jointly by Sonia and Manmohan.
The Congress statement may have been a damage control method, signaling a temporary truce between the party and the PMO, but the fact is, a section of the Congress is actively exploring the possibility of replacing the prime minister on the grounds that it would dilute anti incumbency ahead of the general elections.
Their biggest problem, however, is that Sonia Gandhi hasn't made up her mind, and importantly, there is no consensus on who Dr Singh could actually be replaced with.
The Congress group met at least twice last week to nudge the Congress president to consider a change in guard before the Parliament's monsoon session. AK Antony was an alternative being mentioned, but being a Christian with no base in North India was seen as his handicap. Chidambaram was also being mentioned, but his relations with allies and the pending 2G matter in the courts were seen to be limitations.
Meira Kumar's name was also thrown up, but she is seen as a political lightweight. Rahul Gandhi remained the preferred choice of the group, but he has so far been reluctant to head a UPA-II government.
The next two months before the monsoon session of Parliament could be critical for the PM's future. If more damaging revelations come up in the coalgate inquiry or in the Supreme Court, the Congress leadership may have to act against Manmohan Singh, who has so far benefited from the no-alternative factor.
If the pressure gets too much, the Congress party may have to take a call on if, and whether, Manmohan Singh is the man to lead them into the next General Elections.