x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Leadership questioned as premier recuperates

As India has not declared a caretaker PM in Singh's absence, concerns are raised over who is at helm in the nuclear-armed country.

NEW DELHI // Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, was in intensive care yesterday recovering from heart bypass surgery amid confusion over who was in charge of the nuclear-armed country. The 76-year-old underwent a successful 11-hour operation on Saturday after complaining of chest pains earlier in the week and was now making "rapid progress", according to his office and his doctors.

But the complex operation, the third on his heart, has raised concerns about his political future ahead of a general election, due before May, and once again highlighted the old age of India's political leaders. Mr Singh, a diabetic who had a heart bypass in Britain in 1990, was admitted to the state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi on Friday after tests confirmed blockages in arteries around the heart.

Saturday's operation bypassed the blockages by grafting five arteries from elsewhere in his body on to the heart - which was kept beating throughout. His medical team said he was conscious and breathing without a ventilator yesterday, but expected to remain in intensive care for 48 hours and in hospital for a week. It would be six weeks before he could resume normal duties, they said. However, questions still remained as to who was authorised to take key decisions while he was under general anaesthetic, as well as in the coming days and weeks.

India has no deputy prime minister and no formal rules governing who replaces the prime minister in an emergency, unlike the United States where the vice president takes over. Mr Singh's office and the Congress Party, which leads the coalition government, initially hesitated to announce who would assume his responsibilities. They have now clarified that Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, will chair cabinet meetings and replace Mr Singh as acting finance minister.

But officials have stressed that Mr Mukherjee, 73, is not acting prime minister, creating confusion about what authority he holds. Veerappa Moily, the Congress general secretary, told reporters: "There cannot be two prime ministers." Mr Mukherjee also cannot launch India's nuclear weapons, control over which has been passed to a committee including him, the home minister, and the defence minister.

A launch could thus be delayed by disagreement in the committee or failure to convene its members. One government official said it was normal for the senior-most cabinet member - in this case Mr Mukherjee - to take over the government if the prime minister was incapacitated, and that no official announcement had been necessary. A government spokesperson disagreed, saying: "The prime minister is still in charge. Nobody has taken over his functions."

However, Mr Singh will be replaced by A K Antony, the defence minister, at today's Republic Day parade - the first without a prime minister since the annual event began in 1950. Mr Singh is also unable to host Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president who is guest of honour at the parade, or Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, who has postponed a visit to India. Analysts said it remains unclear who is in charge in the event of another terrorist attack like the one in Mumbai in November, which killed 176 people and provoked a crisis in relations with Pakistan.

Dr Singh's incapacity, in the midst of the tensions with Pakistan and a global economic crisis, has cast doubts on his fitness to serve another five-year term if Congress wins the coming election. The Times of India posed the question "Should the country not scout for younger leaders?" in an editorial on Saturday, concluding, "India must not be over-dependent on politicians in their seventies and eighties".

Congress has said that Mr Singh will remain prime minister if it wins and had planned to make his partnership with Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born party leader, a feature of their election campaign. However, some in the party have suggested that Rahul, Mrs Gandhi's 38-year-old son, should take over from Mr Singh within a couple of years of the election. Mr Gandhi, who became a member of parliament in 2004, was appointed a general secretary of Congress in 2007 and raised his profile last year with a tour of India.

His supporters say India needs a new generation of leaders to better reflect the country's predominantly young population - roughly half of which is younger than 25. India's cabinet has an average age of 67 and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister, LK Advani, is 81. Rajnath Singh, the BJP's leader, recently dismissed Mr Gandhi as a "bachcha" or kid, hoping to appeal to Indian voters' traditional preference for seniority in their leaders.

hgardner@thenational.ae