PM away, debate begins on next incumbent

January 23rd, 2009 - 5:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew Delhi, Jan 23 (IANS) With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh undergoing a coronary bypass surgery Saturday, and he may well take a month to recuperate, a debate has started in the ruling Congress about the government’s leadership during the run-up to the April-May general elections - and beyond. Though External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the seniormost cabinet minister who is widely seen as the number two in the government, will stand in for the prime minister in his absence, sources said he is unlikely to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming elections.

“There is no question,” a senior leader, who did not wish to be identified, told IANS when asked if Mukherjee could be propped up for the top job should the Prime Minister take longer to recover.

“There are many others in the party who may not allow that to happen, besides (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi herself is very clear on her choice of Manmohan Singh,” the senior leader told IANS.

Mukherjee, who had a meeting with Gandhi, sought to play down his role in the government as “a natural routine thing” as the country could not be without a prime minister for a month.

Mukherjee said: ”I indeed met the Congress president. We discussed certain other things.

“It is premature to speculate. The prime minister is going for his treatment. We don’t know how long it will take, what will happen.”

Party leaders said Mukherjee has taken centrestage at the moment, but that is till Manmohan Singh returns.

Another senior leader, who also spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said: “And then, there is P. Chidambaram, there is even Sheila Dixit, there are others… and then the allies of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) would have to be factored in. It is not easy (to just make Mukherjee the prime minister).”

There is widespread speculation that if Manmohan Singh remains out of action for a longer time, the Congress president may have to go in for 38-year-old general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Sources claimed that the scion of the Gandhi family is himself reluctant to take on this role yet.

One minister, who also did not wish to go on record, said there was a thinking in the Congress not to push him into campaigning for the elections if his health did not permit it.

If the party won, it would have to take a call on whether Manmohan Singh would be fit enough to lead the government again. The opinion of Manmohan Singh and his family would have to be factored into any such decision.

It is all wait and watch, but it seems certain that the prime minister will not be there when the government presents a vote-on-account in parliament Feb 16 to seek approval for government expenditure pending the budget presentation after the general elections.

Manmohan Singh may not even be an active campaigner for the party during the general elections, party insiders say. “He has never been a prime campaigner for the party but his absence make it difficult for the Congress to present a prime ministerial face,” said one.

Manmohan Singh, who was discharged from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Thursday following an angiography Wednesday, was readmitted to the hospital Friday. Extensive medical tests in the last two days had revealed that he had arterial blockages.

“He could have carried on for a few more days but the prime minister’s family felt the surgery should happen at the earliest,” said a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office.

He added that the prime minister had initially said that he wanted the procedure after the Republic Day celebrations, but the family did not want to postpone the surgery.

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