Frequent visitors to the All India Congress Committee offices in Delhi’s Akbar Road are all agreed that there is only person in the premises worth meeting: the party’s outspoken General Secretary Digvijay Singh. Over the past two years, the personable, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has carved out a special place for himself in the Congress. First, he has acquired a reputation of having the ear of fellow General Secretary and the pre-ordained heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Whatever Digvijay says is said to have the tacit blessings and endorsement of the 41-year-old Gandhi. Secondly, Digvijay has acquired the image of being the only real Muslim leader of the Congress, an honour that Sardar Vallabbhai Patel once conferred, and not without a touch of sarcasm, on Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ever since ‘civil society’ injected itself into the political landscape with the fast of Anna Hazare and the shenanigans surrounding Baba Ramdev, Digvijay has never lost an opportunity to demarcate the Congress from the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government. When the joint committee of Cabinet ministers and Team Anna was established to draft a Lokpal Bill, Digvijay questioned the credentials of the ‘civil society’ brigade. When four ministers and senior bureaucrats rushed to the airport to confer with Baba Ramdev and persuade him that the Government was ready to meet all his demands, Digvijay struck a discordant note by denouncing the yoga guru as a ‘maha thug’ who had been put up to political mischief by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party. When Congress workers celebrated Rahul’s 41st birthday (the birthday boy was, predictably, not anywhere in sight), Digvijay solemnly announced that given his “sound political instincts…it is time that Rahul becomes the Prime Minister.”

The first time, the silver-tongued James Bond once said, is an accident; the second time is a coincidence; but the third time is a conspiracy. The unending frequency of Digvijay’s statements puncturing the UPA Government and the Prime Minister are no longer being treated casually. A functionary in the Prime Minister’s Office bravely suggested to me last week that it was imprudent to attach too much significance to TV sound bites. Unfortunately for Race Course Road, the perception of Digvijay as the proverbial loose cannon isn’t widely shared in the rest of the political class.

The Congress has its own way of capping loose cannons and, when expedient, opening them up for rounds of undirected fire. Those with memories may recall the role of Congress ministers such as Kalpnath Rath and K.K. Tewary in the last months of the Rajiv Gandhi Government. They may also recall the intelligent use of the Young Turks—Chandra Shekhar, Shashi Bhushan, Mohan Dharia, et al—by Indira Gandhi in her war with the so-called Syndicate in 1969.

No two situations are similar but it stands to reason that if Digvijay had indeed been talking out of turn, the proprietors of the Congress would have told him quite firmly that it is the function of underlings to be seen and not heard. Since no such message appears to have been passed on, it is safe to conclude that there is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink stamp of approval to what Digvijay says, but with a built-in deniability clause in case something goes horribly wrong—as it did over his over-enthusiastic birthday message to Rahul.

That Digvijay is much more than a mere stalking horse for the Congress’ first family is becoming increasingly clear with each passing day. Initially it may have made some sense to maintain a discreet distance between the party and the Government’s dealings with sundry Gandhians and yogic ‘civil society’ groups. The Congress, after all, had its own most-favoured ‘civil society’ representatives (as Digvijay made no attempt to conceal) in the National Advisory Committee. Yet, the systematic manner in which Digvijay mounted personal attacks on Team Anna and then ridiculed Ramdev mercilessly made the breakdown of civil relations between the activists and government seem unavoidable. 

It is significant that Digvijay didn’t stop at targeting the non-elected custodians of public morality. His frontal attack on Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee for putting his entire political reputation at stake was more than an act of insolence. It was carefully designed to signal that Digvijay’s sharp indictment of the Government’s pusillanimity was backed by some considerable authority.

If Digvijay’s larger purpose was merely to nudge the Congress in the direction of shrill, anti-BJPism, he has succeeded. As the focus shifts in mid-July from a Lokpal Bill to deliberations in Parliament, the Government may find itself facing an Opposition that is in no mood to oblige the Government even remotely. The refusal of Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to accept responsibility for heading the working group on the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax is an indication of the breakdown of relations between the Government and the Opposition. Unless some working relationship is re-established, the Government may find itself in a situation akin to that which prevailed in the final year of Rajiv Gandhi’s Government. In 1989, however, the Congress had a steamroller parliamentary majority in both Houses of Parliament. This is no longer the case.

The net effect of the inner-party turbulence in the Congress has been the growing loss of the Prime Minister’s authority. An understated man with a low public profile, Manmohan Singh conveys the impression of being beleaguered—an impression fuelled by the Capital’s bush telegraph. Six months ago, political discussions in the Congress centred invariably on the next ministerial reshuffle—that great panacea for all ills. Today, speculation over who’s in and who’s out has been replaced by the question: will the UPA see a mid-term leadership change?

This may be a wildly speculative non-question, as the Congress establishment did its best to suggest throughout this week, but that the issue gained currency is itself ominous.  When, on top of Digvijay’s advocacy of a Rahul takeover, a politically ambitious Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh resumes his aggressive flexing of ‘green’ muscle against industry, can political watchers be blamed for concluding that the Prime Minister is both helpless and powerless.

The impression of a lame duck regime prone to either desperation or total paralysis has had a debilitating effect on governance. Always inclined to play it safe, the bureaucracy has more or less abandoned decision-making; the judiciary is in a vengeful mood; and bodies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General have opted to go well beyond the scrutiny of public expenditure and undertaken policy reviews. The thin walls of separation of powers appear to have been breached and there is a Constitutional free for all.

To cap it all, the political crisis has coincided with growing economic problems for India. The aam aadmi has been affected by nine per cent inflation; industry has been dismayed by volatile interest rates and falling consumer demand; and investor confidence has been shaken by a rising fiscal deficit, the shelving of reforms and the gloom surrounding big ticket projects such as POSCO.

In a perfect world, the Congress too should have been alarmed since the fine distinction Digvijay has made between the party and the government is notional. However, the BJP’s inability to make political capital out of the Congress’ woes appears to have injected an unreal level of complacency.

In any country where democracy isn’t as firmly embedded the situation would have been conducive to a military coup; in a rarefied Delhi, it is becoming the encouragement for a Thakur-directed palace coup. The adventurism won’t succeed but it may well leave the Congress in disarray.