Indian politics has just received a flash in the pan by an incredibly enigmatic statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a man known for his reticence.
While returning home after attending the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban, Singh was asked by accompanying media at his onboard press conference in Air India One on Thursday evening whether he had the drive, energy and motivation like Deng Xiaoping, one of the most popular and charismatic leaders of China in modern times, to continue in public life even after crossing 80.
Singh, who will turn 81 in six months, bamboozled everybody when he answered: "I have tried my very best to serve this country with all sincerity, with all dedication. Whether I have succeeded or not, it is for the public at large the people of India to judge."
Singh's answer, rather candid by his own standards, came when another journalist unsuccessfully tried to goad him into answering a similar question a few minutes prior. Singh then wriggled out of the situation by refusing to the question about whether he would accept a nomination to be prime minister for a third term. Instead, he said this was merely hypothetical and that bridge would be crossed in time.
Singh's eventual answer that it is for the Indian people to judge his work as the prime minister has thrown Indian politics into a tizzy. Politicians as well as political analysts are interpreting it as a signal from Singh that he is neither tired, nor retired and that he is not going to hang up his boots anytime soon.
This is definitely a change of tact and strategy, whether from Singh or the Congress Party or both is yet to be known. The indication from the Congress Party for years has been that he is keeping the prime minister's chair warm for Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and the recently anointed No.2 in the party.
For years Singh has been inviting Gandhi to take over the government and lead the nation, but the prince has not even joined Singh's cabinet, fuelling speculations that he would straightaway take over as prime minister if Congress wins the next general elections, due by May 2014.
However, Singh's refusal to come up with a categorical answer that he would be leaving to allow the 42-year-old Gandhi to take over is being seen as a possibility that he may well be in the prime ministerial race for a third consecutive term.
A possible explanation for this tectonic shift in the strategy of Singh or Congress or both is as follows.
The current political scenario does not favor either Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and neither of the big parties is likely to form the next government on its own. Actually no major political party looks set to post major electoral gains in the next elections.
It cannot be ruled out that Singh deliberately threw a spanner in the works by his above-quoted statement. Knowing the Congress culture, no party bigwig, and least of all Singh, would dare to make such a major statement that does not have the prior approval of the Gandhis - Sonia and Rahul.
It is not for nothing that the Congress Party has ruled India for over 55 years since the country gained independence from the British on August 15, 1947.
The 128-year-old India's Grand Old Party, one of the oldest democratically-operating political parties in the world, has been operating with a concept of "high command" since the Indira Gandhi days.
It is a unique concept among the national parties of India where all decision-making powers are vested in just individual. It is Sonia Gandhi in the context of contemporary Congress hierarchy who is the party president and also generally perceived to be the "super prime minister." Other national parties like the BJP and the two communist parties generally have a group of leaders navigating party affairs.
Only regional parties like the DMK, AIADMK, Nationalist Congress Party, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party all have decision-making powers vested in their respective heads.
In the humble assessment of this writer, therefore, Singh remains a serious contender to become the Congress Party's prime ministerial candidate in the next election. This would also provide the much-needed cover for Gandhi from the very probable Narendra Modi onslaught. If Modi is anointed as the BJP's prime minister candidate, a likely scenario, then why waste your trump card and why not use an already tried and tested candidate like Singh to test Modi? This seems to be the Congress strategy.
The author is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org