Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Who'll Be The PM?

We have watched over dinner, the same politicians say the same things for two months non-stop. It has become tiring and tedious. Fortunately, it all got over yesterday with the final round of the campaign, and in the next 3-4 days you should know who the new Prime Minister will be.

Unfortunately, though, if a clear picture does not emerge that quickly, you still may have to put up with the faces of those politicians. Each will be claiming how close he, or she, is to the magic figure, 272, the strength required in the Lok Sabha to form government.

When the election campaign formally began two months ago, Atal Behari Vajpayee looked comfortably set for a second term, riding on the expensive India Shining campaign, which the BJP had started last year itself. Perhaps that's a mistake the BJP made: it lit up its candles too early in the evening. Most of the wax had melted away by the time the election campaign reached its peak, and that's when the Opposition parties pulled out their candles.

Mulayam Singh Yadav employed smarter copywriters to create sleek ads that projected him as the Chandrababu Naidu of Uttar Pradesh. And the Congress launched Rahul Gandhi to resurrect, quite successfully, the charm of Rajiv Gandhi. And then came the exit polls after the second round of elections which showed the Congress narrowing its gap with the BJP, and out came from hibernation the leaders who've always aspired to architect a non-BJP coalition such as Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

The CPM general secretary is old and ailing, but he is still so passionate about dislodging the BJP that he emphasises the need for a Congress-CPM alliance even in Kerala, forgetting that the two parties are bitter enemies there. This could be his last chance to stitch up a non-BJP coalition, and his efforts are bound to stoke the ambition of many politicians who have been waiting for their day to rule the country.

Whether their day has come will depend on the NDA's tally. If it falls just little short of the 272-mark, then Vajpayee should have no problem continuing. He can trust on George Fernandes to get the requisite numbers. In any case, Vajpayee still enjoys a mass appeal and in the present circumstances, he alone can provide a stable government — something he has proved by successfully running a coalition government for six years. But if the NDA falls way short of the magic figure, then you'll either have a Congress government supported by the Third Front parties; or a Third Front government supported by the Congress. The latter's longevity will always be doubtful, because the Congress has a history of pulling down governments at the Centre. But in either case, one of these could be the Prime Minister:

Sonia Gandhi: The sphinx rises

If she pushes up the Congress tally, which has only gone down after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, it will be a major victory for her and she will have the moral right to stake claim. As for her foreign origin, the court has made it clear that she is an Indian citizen and her allies like Laloo Yadav also consider her to be an Indian. But she might face roadblocks from people like Sharad Pawar, who had quit the Congress only because of her foreign origin. But if she becomes the Prime Minister, she will not only make history but might also raise the hopes of Indians settled in Italy to someday step into the shoes of Silvio Berlusconi. And foreign correspondents, when they send their dispatches from Delhi, will begin their reports like this: “Italian-born Indian Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi on Monday said...”

Manmohan Singh: Backroom Boy

The shy, soft-spoken Sardar, who as the finance minister in the early 1990's sowed the seeds of economic reforms, could be a possible candidate if Sonia Gandhi is not unanimously accepted by the non-NDA parties. Singh says he is not interested, but you can't expect a man like him to say, “Yes, I want to be the Prime Minister.” As the finance minister he was hated by the Left parties but that was when the Left hadn't discovered that the BJP was the bigger enemy.

Somnath Chatterjee: Not Left out...

In May 1996, when Vajpayee's minority government was certain to fall, the newly-formed United Front decided to make the CPM leader Jyoti Basu, then the West Bengal chief minister, the Prime Minister. Bengali journalists stationed in Delhi rejoiced: they could have free access to the PMO. But their joy lasted only for a day. The CPM politburo decided against Basu taking up the job — a decision Basu later described as “historical blunder.” The CPM won't repeat the blunder and if the situation calls for its man to become the Prime Minister, then Somnath Chatterjee, a Lok Sahba veteran, could be the candidate. A good-natured man, Chatterjee gets along well with all political leaders and he could be the bridge between the Congress and the parties which are anti-BJP but not so anti-Congress, such as the Samajwadi Party. It was at his place about two years ago that Sonia Gandhi, over dinner, interacted with other Opposition leaders for the first time.

Mulayam Singh Yadav: Kingmaker/King

If the NDA falls short of majority, then Yadav is definitely going to be the kingmaker, if not the king himself. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has worked hard this election and if he wins the 40 seats that he is expecting, his party could be the third-largest in the Lok Sabha and would be wooed by both the BJP and the Congress. When Vajpayee's government was pulled down by Jayalalithaa in April 1998, Sonia Gandhi could have become the Prime Minister but Yadav refused to support her because of her foreign origin. He has since toned down his stand on the foreign-origin issue but it remains to be seen whether he agrees to support a Congress-led government, or is adamant, like in 1998, on the Third Front forming a government with Congress support. And if the Third Front is installed at the Centre, then Yadav, as the leader of its largest constituent, could be the natural choice as the Prime Minister.

Laloo Prasad Yadav: The Shrewd Jester

“One day I will rule the nation, serve the nation,” roared Laloo, the shrewd politician who hides behind that buffoonery, on a TV channel last week. “But unlike them I am not in a hurry.” By “them” he meant the BJP, the party he hates the most. He hates the BJP so much that he is now the biggest ally of the Congress at the Centre -- the same Congress which he fought to establish himself as a politician. Laloo might not be in a hurry, but in the event of a hung Parliament, the non-NDA parties might be in a hurry to cobble up a coalition. And if egos prevent the emergence of a consensus candidate, then Laloo could spring out the compromise candidate. In that case, the most sought-after man in the PMO will be the man who carries his spittoon.

Sharad Pawar: The outsider

He became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 1978 at the age of 38 by splitting the Congress and toppling its government. Since then Pawar has made many such dramatic moves, the most recent being quitting the Congress over Sonia's foreign origin and forming the Nationalist Congress Party. At present, though, the Congress and the NCP are allies in Maharashtra and opinion polls show their alliance winning 20 of the 48 seats in the state. That might not leave Pawar with too many seats to bargain for the top job, but many non-NDA parties might prefer him over, say, Sonia or Mulayam. Pawar's logic is, if Deve Gowda can become the Prime Minister then why can't he? Yes, why can't he?

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