Yes,prime ministers

Have we ever before had so many aspirants for the top job?

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Published: February 7, 2009 12:00:02 am

Is 2009 going to be a reprise of 1996? Neither the Congress nor the BJP could muster the numbers required to stake a claim for government in 1996. So finally the tail ended up wagging the dog. The Congress gave outside support to the United Front and Deve Gowda,unexpectedly,emerged as prime minister.

With indications that the 2009 general elections could be as inconclusive as 1996’s,several politicians have already started building castles in the air. Mayawati,when asked about her travel plans to New Delhi,did not take the question literally. She declared that she did intend to be ruler of Delhi someday. Lalu Prasad was similarly forthright: “It is no sin to aim to be PM . Even I want to be PM.” Ram Vilas Paswan,Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Sharad Pawar have been more direct. Paswan said in a recent interview: “It is time I lead the UPA in Bihar and if given a chance in India.” NCP spokesperson D.P. Tripathi had created a ripple earlier by pointing out that Pawar has the “capacity and credentials” for the top job and it depended on the post-poll political situation. Shekhawat,snubbed by the BJP,speculated that he could throw his hat in the ring if there was a hung verdict,since he has friends in many parties.

With such immodest jostling so early,the Congress spokesperson was quick to point out that the party already had a prime ministerial candidate for the next elections in Manmohan Singh and there is no vacancy. But the

Congress has to first be sure of getting the numbers. If in 2004 government formation was smooth,even though the Congress won less than 150 seats,it was because of the Left,which acted as facilitator,getting disparate elements to gather under the UPA umbrella.

The bad blood between the Congress and the Left parties over the nuclear deal and subsequent trust vote had led to a bitter parting between the communists and the Congress. CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat is,for now,emphatic that his party will not support a Congress-led government next time. In the event of an eventual Left climbdown,chances are that the communists could assert themselves by demanding to have a say on who the prime minister should be.

True,the Left parties are likely to return to the next Lok Sabha with less seats,compared to the present strength of 60 seats. All the same,the Left exerts influence far beyond its strength in the “third front”,where it has assumed the leadership mantle. At present the Left talks cockily of supporting a “third front” candidate for PM,the choice depending on who brings in a sizable chunk of MPs. Mayawati in UP and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu,are expected to perform well. But both are considered too high-handed and mercurial to be able to steer a shaky coalition. Chandrababu Naidu,Nitish Kumar and Sharad Pawar are temperamentally better suited for the pragmatism required in coalition politics. Naidu,however,faces a tough election. Nitish’s prospects in Bihar look bright,but he is part of the NDA. But in politics,where equations keep altering,this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Meanwhile,Pawar,a UPA member,flirts with the Left,while at the same time demanding seats from the Congress outside Maharashtra. Displaying uncharacteristic firmness with its troublesome partners,the Congress has announced it is keeping its post-poll options open and the UPA election tie-ups are all state specific. The warning is aimed not at the NCP alone. It was meant also for the troublesome Samajwadi Party. The Congress has given notice that in a post-election scenario it is free to poach from any side,whether NDA or the third front.

The third front may posture,but in fact it cannot hope to throw up a prime ministerial candidate,without the support of the Big Two. It’s expected that the Congress and BJP,between them,will win at least half the seats in Parliament. Both have a reputation for toppling the minority governments they install. The Congress let down Charan Singh,Chandra Shekhar,Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral; the BJP,V.P. Singh.

With the BJP short on allies and encumbered by an aging leadership,it appears at a disadvantage compared to the Congress. But the situation is fluid and there is enough time to put its house in order. From the Congress’s point of view,its best bet as PM remains the young scion of its first family who,ironically,unlike his elders,appears to be in no hurry to become prime minister. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi reckons that the electoral battle of 2009 could turn out to be a semi-final.

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