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Pankaj Vohra , Hindustan Times
January 25, 2009
The entire nation has wished the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, a speedy recovery from his surgery. But political positioning for the coveted job has begun with the parliamentary polls drawing closer. There are now virtually six challengers for the job from outside the Congress fold. Four of them are from the Sangh Parivar itself. L.K.Advani is the NDA’s choice, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is hopeful that he may become the NDA choice eventually, Rajnath Singh’s supporters feel that he has age on his side and Narendra Modi, who has been endorsed by India Inc, continues to be a favourite with many in the saffron party. Sharad Pawar has the political experience to handle the numbers in a post-poll scenario and Mayawati, if she gets near the 60 mark, would be a serious contender.

 There are many within the Congress who aspire to be Prime Minister but are reluctant to come out openly for fear of the high command. The Congress president Sonia Gandhi has made it abundantly clear that Dr Manmohan Singh will be the party’s choice and that there is no vacancy for the job at present. In late 2006, at the Congress Chief Ministers’ conclave, Mrs Gandhi had categorically stated that there would never be a deputy Prime Minister putting to rest all speculation on this issue. However, in the changed circumstances, there is speculation over whether Dr Singh’s health will force him out of the race in the post-2009 scenario. But there was similar speculation over Atal Behari Vajpayee whose health was always a subject of concern. He served as PM for six-and-half years and successfully contested the Lok Sabha polls from Lucknow in 2004.

In fact, Dr Singh himself sent out the wrong signals by renewing his driving licence last week on his own. His critics see this as indication that he is preparing to drive his own car on the completion of his tenure. But even if he does not become Prime Minister, it is highly unlikely that he will have to drive his own car owing to the privileges granted to former prime ministers. Dr Singh’s opting out of the race may cost the Congress some seats as he is still a favourite with the middle classes. He enjoys their confidence because of his simple living and high integrity.

There appears to be an oblique attempt by some senior leaders within the Congress to send out a signal to the high command to project someone other than Dr Singh as in their view he is “non- political” and could be a liability in the run-up to the polls. Talk of making Rahul Gandhi Prime Minister is essentially meant to send a message to Mrs Gandhi that it is high time that a change take place at the top. The talk about Rahul Gandhi was not as much about making him PM as it was on ensuring that Manmohan Singh does not become the candidate again.

Everyone knows that Rahul Gandhi will be elevated to the top position at an opportune moment. But in the world of coalition politics, there is always an element of uncertainty. The Congress leadership will never risk making Rahul Gandhi the Prime Minister if it has apprehensions that things could subsequently go wrong  with the allies. He will apparently take over when there is more stability. For the time being, he will be a star campaigner and try and add numbers to the Congress kitty. There is no denying that he has a bright future and appears to be evolving as a mature leader under the guidance of his mother and some of the senior leaders.

Many Congress leaders who have Prime Ministerial ambitions know that unless they have the backing of Mrs Gandhi and her family, they can never get the coveted post, at least in a Congress- led government. Sharad Pawar knows this. Therefore, if he has to enter the Prime Minister’s race, it will have to be as a non- Congress candidate who like, Chandrashekhar in 1990, may compel the Congress to support him from outside to keep communal forces at bay. Otherwise, he may have no qualms about forming the government with support from other quarters. Unlike Chandrashekhar, his party is an ally of the Congress in Maharashtra, Goa and Jharkhand. The situation becomes slightly complex but Pawar who had challenged P.V Narasimha Rao for the top job following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination is certainly going to make a last-ditch attempt at an appropriate time. Between us.