NEW DELHI: Congress on Monday rushed to quell speculations about leadership change, rallying behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for leading UPA-2 and rebuffing AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh's call that Rahul Gandhi take over.
The unease created by Digvijay's statement had become evident in the morning itself when Digvijay issued a "clarification". The anxiety to squelch the buzz about any re-think in the party over Manmohan Singh's continuing suitability for the top job led the party to renew its vote of confidence for the PM.
Faced with a volley of questions on Digvijay's statement, party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said, "I want to point out that the prime minister is Manmohan Singh. He has done an excellent job in leading the government for seven years... he will continue to lead us."
She lavished praise on Rahul but stressed that the general secretary, who has emerged as a "youth icon", could take over the reins only in future. Asked on when he would take over, she said, "Timing, Rahul will decide, people of India will decide and party high command will decide."
Although there is widespread disappointment with Singh and the government, party leadership considers him to be its best bet, if only because Rahul is not yet inclined to move into the PMO. That is the principal reason why the party would not like Singh to get diminished.
Digvijay's remark was widely seen as destabilizing the PM, its timing being problematic in view of the cloud over government's leadership because of corruption charges and the growing sense that the Centre was under siege. That the Congress general secretary helps Rahul in his plans for the party's recovery in UP rendered it vulnerable to, party sources stressed, "misinterpretation".
There was another reason why the party chief Sonia Gandhi may have found the "Rahul-is-ready" remark particularly discomfiting. The statement came just before her long one-on-one interaction with the PM on the widely anticipated ministerial restructuring.
Digvijay set the tone for the damage control with a volte face. He told reporters in the morning, "I must clarify that the only thing I said was that in my lifetime, I would like to see Rahul Gandhi as the PM. It does not mean that Manmohan Singh should go. I never meant it. We are happy under his leadership. I meant that Rahul has all the qualities to become PM." Though Digvijay has had to issue clarifications earlier as well, the one on Monday stood out because it read like an about-turn.