India’s Prime Minister and ‘Crown Prince’ Have an Awkward Spat

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Saurabh Das / AP

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offers prayers at a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi on his birth anniversary in New Delhi on Oct. 2, 2013

India’s ruling Congress Party was scrambling this week to smooth over an uncharacteristically public rift that erupted on Friday between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice president Rahul Gandhi, scion to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated India’s politics since the country’s independence. On Wednesday morning, the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi and a public holiday in India, Rahul reportedly visited Singh’s residence in New Delhi to make amends for calling a controversial ordinance that the PM supports “nonsense.”

The law in question seeks to allow elected officials convicted of crimes to stay in office and stand for re-election during the appeals process. The Cabinet had presented the order for India’s President to sign into law last week after the Supreme Court struck it down, ruling that lawmakers would have to step down if convicted of a crime with a two-year jail sentence or more. Nearly a third of lawmakers in India’s lower house had criminal charges against them after the last general election. On Sept. 27, in a rare moment of candor before the New Delhi press, Gandhi said the order that the Cabinet passed to the President’s office was “complete nonsense” and “should be torn up and thrown away.” On Tuesday, after the Singh-Gandhi powwow, the Cabinet reportedly decided to withdraw the ordinance.

Politicians disagree over laws all the time, but the timing and fervor of Gandhi’s comments were widely interpreted as an open challenge to the country’s ministers, and to Singh in particular. Though Gandhi is known for making off-the-cuff comments once in a while, India relishes a good political intrigue, and speculation was rife about whether his remarks were orchestrated to undermine the PM, who was on an official visit to New York City at the time.

Planned or not, having the party’s vice president question Singh’s policy while representing India on the global stage sparked immediate suggestions that Singh should resign. Predictably, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) re-upped its ongoing call for the PM to go, but even some longtime supporters like Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s former media adviser, said Gandhi’s defiance was more than Singh should be expected to bear. “It’s the height of insubordination,” Baru told CNN-IBN. “He has taken every knock on his chin … He should quit today.” Singh quickly sought to stamp out those suggestions, telling reporters on the plane back to India with his trademark composure that there was “no question” of him resigning, and that he and Gandhi would work it out.

They seem to have done that, but the fact that the government abandoned the bill after Gandhi’s comments translates into a big win for the dynast whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were Prime Ministers of India. Where that leaves his party ahead of elections next year is unclear. Gandhi is seen by many in India to be the choice of Congress, led by his mother Sonia Gandhi, to replace Singh should the party prevail in national elections scheduled for next year. But Gandhi himself has yet to voice those ambitions, and has appeared to be reluctant to step into the role of party front man even after being recently appointed party veep. The heat is on for Congress to present a focused and unified front now that the BJP has put forward its own controversial prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Whether Gandhi will take this fresh mandate and run with it remains to be seen.