Learn statecraft, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admonished his own home minister, SK Shinde, after the latter did not forewarn the family of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri held responsible for an attack on India's Parliament, about his hanging. Singh's rebuke is indirectly one of his own boss, Sonia Gandhi, who Shinde too takes orders from.
India's open secret is that ministers virtually ignore Singh, and do the bidding of the Gandhi family. Right after Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani convicted of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, was hanged, family cronies, for the first time, asked for Guru's head. Why?
Because a phoenix, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, is rising in India. He has captured the hearts and minds of India's Hindus who expected so much of Singh, and got so little. Even some Indian Muslims, many of whom dread Modi as a monster, seem to have reconciled to him becoming prime minister. His party, whose leaders quake in his wake, also appears to be circling wagons around him.
Singh's government careens from crisis to crisis. Corruption, gang rape, riots, all have marred his tenure. Few expected a man of impeccable integrity to lead a government tarred with such corruption. Military chiefs are either accused of receiving bribes, or are busy accusing others of receiving them. Congress was also expected to stem riots against minorities, which Singh has managed to do for the better part of eight years, but the recent killings of Muslims in the Congress-ruled state of Assam has shaken the faith of the minority community.
Agreed that Modi's alleged role in Gujarat's 2002 mayhem haunts him, and that the Congress chief minister in the state of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, has got away lightly compared to Modi, but Gogoi also is not accused of as much direct culpability as Modi is. India's northeast is also a far-flung outpost, unlike Gujarat.
Sonia knows that Singh's second term has been disastrous. If business continues as usual, her party will lose the coming elections, shattering her dream of making her son Rahul prime minister. Two years ago, Gandhi family lackeys started decrying Singh, expressing the wish for Rahul to take over. Singh did not take the hint, and could not be dislodged because even a devalued premiership confers a certain security. Modi, take note. Just in case you miss the boat, and promote a sycophant, it may come back to bite you.
Rahul's own diffidence withered away the putsch. But now he has been mandated to lead his party in 2014's general elections. While Rahul has dithered, Modi has laid the groundwork for his ascendancy. He has repeatedly thrashed the Congress in state elections. He now talks only of growth and development, which is what the upwardly-mobile Indian wants to hear. Even some Muslims rationalize that they are better off in Gujarat, where at least they are benefiting to some extent in its development, than in a Congress-ruled state like Assam where there is neither security nor livelihood.
Just when Gandhi family loyalists went after Guru, so did Modi. The loyalists and Modi lose no opportunity to bait each other, so how were they on the same page now? Modi asking for Guru's head should have instinctively made the loyalists counter-react. Sonia had quite possibly decided that she needed to remove Guru as a last-ditch effort to stall Modi's rise. If Guru had not been hanged, Modi would surely, perhaps even debilitatingly, have cornered Rahul for being soft on terror.
So Guru had to go. Shinde is a rough-and-ready former cop, ever ready to please his masters. Irrespective of whether Guru got a fair trial, due process seems to have been compromised in the end. India's president, Pranab Mukherjee, is an acknowledged master in realpolitik. When Shinde recommended to him that Guru be hanged, Mukherjee had two options. The first was to say yes straightaway, which is what he did in the case of Kasab. The second was to say no, which is what he did for Guru. While the president is bound by the government's advice, whenever a president has asked for a rethink, the government has been wary of approaching him again.
No such qualms beset Shinde. A few months later, he shoved the file back to Mukherjee. Mukherjee again had two options. The first was to say yes. The second was to sit on the file, in other words, do nothing, at least for some months.
As president, Mukherjee is the keeper of the nation's conscience. Why did he return the file in the first instance, clearly indicating his disapproval, and then sign post-haste on the dotted line? He was never Sonia's toady, and the presidency grants him a sinecure of five years. Sure, Sonia could try to get him hemmed in by intelligence agencies, as former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, reportedly did with other presidents, but there are enough checks and balances in the system (read Manmohan Singh) to prevent that from happening now.
Mukherjee in his presidential acceptance speech stressed on India's secularity. Perhaps he too realized that Guru must be dispensed with to forestall Modi. Appointing Modi PM must make him squirm. Guru was done away with in the stealth of dawn, his family kept in the dark, and no judicial review of the president's mercy petition rejection, which is the law of the land, allowed. Shinde trots out the lame excuse about maintaining peace in Kashmir. But Kashmir became a powder keg after Guru's hanging, and might stay so for long. And now that Manmohan Singh has publicly slapped Shinde, one can only surmise under whose direction Shinde acted.