In the parlour games that often masquerade as punditry in India's political capital, there is already frenzied betting on who will be the contenders for 2014. Despite the fact that every media cliché - 'litmus test' to 'make or break' - has been exhausted while debating Rahul Gandhi's performance
in Uttar Pradesh, most political gamblers believe that irrespective of the outcome in the state, the Congress general secretary will be the party's prime ministerial candidate.
Towards the right of the spectrum, the soothsayers find their job a little more complicated. The BJP, they say, has a problem of plenty, which means there are at least three worthy candidates for the post of PM. But popular wisdom on the right-of-centre has declared a frontrunner: the contentious chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is all set to win another assembly election this year. And so having placed the gladiators in their imaginary ring, the spectators are salivating over the prospect of an electoral battle as blood sport. And the media has worked out headline options for 2014, two years in advance. 'Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi' is the imagined title of the next major election bout.
It all sounds nice and exciting except for one small problem. Don't be surprised if - for different reasons - neither politician ends up being their party's nominee for the country's top political job.
The clamour from Congressmen for Rahul Gandhi to don the mantle could well create claustrophobic pressure over the next two years - especially in the absence of an obvious alternative. But those who know him well argue that Gandhi's approach to the question is unconventional and would surprise all those who make assumptions about 2014. Openly accepting that the failure of the political system is how entrenched patronage is in determining who makes it and who doesn't, Gandhi seems to have focused all his energies on trying to alter this.
His attempts to democratise the Youth Congress may still have thrown up dynasts as key winners, but the core team working on the project believe that enough internal competition has been created to ensure that political inheritance no longer comes with a warranty. In many ways, Gandhi has made the Youth Congress his laboratory to experiment with what he has often called a new brand of politics. What remains unclear is whether the mobilisation of numbers under the Youth Congress will have any impact on the electoral prospects of the parent party. But this is where his personal focus is centred on Uttar Pradesh - to create an organisational structure that can challenge regional forces like Mayawati's BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party.
In many ways, the experiment mirrors the social engineering model perfected by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, in terms of going beyond the political loyalties of dominant caste groups to build a new structure from the disadvantaged and the marginalised of all these groups. So, for example, if the Jatavs remain blindly faithful to Mayawati, the Congress has sought to stitch together the support of the Maha Dalits and most backward castes neglected by both the BSP and the SP. It's a long-term battle that may not garner any immediate victories. But while many believe that despite the rhetoric an alliance between the SP and the Congress is a likely outcome in UP, Gandhi is said to be adamantly opposed to such an alliance. The Congress, he has argued, is better served sitting in the opposition and continuing to work on creating a cadre at the grassroots.
When the moment of reckoning comes in 2014, you may well find Rahul Gandhi apply the same philosophy to the national stage. He has often said that the issue of who will be PM is a media obsession. But reading between the lines, one gets the distinct impression that Gandhi may opt to focus all his energies on a long-term revamp of the Congress from within, seeking to revitalise and rebuild its structural weaknesses. In other words, 2014 may not be his personal milestone to fight as a prime ministerial candidate.
On the other side of the trench, the Narendra Modi story is somewhat different. That Modi has national ambitions and that he now feels ready to test it is no secret. That he will win the next assembly election seems to be foregone conclusion. That he is loved and feted by Corporate India is well known. But the fact that Modi is a deeply polarising figure with a capacity to invite both deep hate and intense loyalty is not the only reason that he makes his party nervous. The real irony is that the Hindutva posterboy has alienated the top leadership in the RSS because of his refusal to defer to their authority. He has stubbornly stayed away from the UP campaign to protest the re-instatement of RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshi by party president Nitin Gadkari. Before that he skipped the party's national executive meet, openly daring the BJP to cut him down to size. Many in the BJP feel that Modi's absence from UP has actually been beneficial in not dangling any sort of red rag to the Muslim voter who may have otherwise consolidated in favour of a single party.
Modi's immense influence in his own state has paralysed the BJP in many ways. It can't decide whether he is a mascot or a high-risk entity that will hurt it more than he will help. But ideology aside, Modi's authoritarianism has alienated even those in the party who once supported him openly. The combination - burning personal bridges within the party and the long shadow of 2002 - may well see Modi's political career confined to his home state.
And the political pundits may well have to imagine another face-off to keep themselves entertained.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.)
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