Ambition lives eternal in Indian politics. A few years ago, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar was asked whether he still believed that he could be the Prime Minister of the country one day. The Maratha leader admitted that with just a dozen MPs in parliament he was an unlikely candidate, but then added, “If Deve Gowda could become Prime Minister with no experience in national politics, I guess any of us can aspire to the top job!”
The singular contribution of the ‘humble’ farmer from Haradanahalli is that he has ensured that becoming the Prime Minister of the country is now as much about luck as it is about competence, mass appeal or even political acceptability. The Ambani-Mittal-Tata troika might have created a stir by projecting Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial credentials based on his investor-friendly policies, but the fact is that in an era of messy coalitions, there is a real danger of the Prime Minister’s office becoming a bit of a lottery, where the proverbial dark horses have just as much of a chance at making it as the so-called front-runners.
Indeed, five of the last six Indian PMs have occupied 7 Race Course Road through amazingly fortuitous circumstances. Chandra Shekhar set the tone when he was able to fulfil his galloping ambition by becoming the PM even though he was the leader of a splintered Janata Dal with just 60 MPs in 1990. PV Narasimha Rao was preparing for political sanyas when the sudden death of Rajiv Gandhi transformed him from a faceless backroom operator into the first leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to rule the country for a full five-year term. Deve Gowda was little more than a regional satrap when, in the United Front’s despairing search for just about anyone for Prime Minister, he found himself at the right place at the right time. Inder Kumar Gujral was the retired Indo-Pak seminarist at the India International Centre when again the United Front’s search for a consensus candidate saw him landing in the PM’s chair. Dr Manmohan Singh too, was edging towards academic hibernation when Sonia Gandhi’s inner voice catapulted the dignified sardar to prime ministership.
The sole exception in this regard in recent times has been Atal Bihari Vajpayee who became the Prime Minister in a more conventional way: he was projected as the BJP, and later the NDA’s helmsman, all through the election campaigns in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Vajpayee’s experience and charisma gave him a stature that made him the obvious choice of his grouping: when you voted for the saffron combine you knew you were voting for Atalji as the Prime Minister. The personality-based campaigns of the period which projected him as ‘The Man India Awaits’ left you in no doubt that he was the Supreme Leader of his front.
In this general election year though, the shrinking of the national parties now threatens to re-open leadership issues all over again. Sure, the NDA has rallied around LK Advani’s leadership and the party machine has already begun to revolve its campaign around his persona. Blogs, websites, campaign material; there is a conscious attempt to build Advani as a larger-than-life father figure in the Vajpayee mould. Should the NDA win an absolute majority, there is little doubt that Advani will be the next Prime Minister. But in an increasingly fragmented electorate, 272 — or the halfway mark of the Lok Sabha — appears a distant figure, almost certainly out of reach of any pre-election alliance. In such an uncertain political scenario there is every possibility that post-poll ‘jugaad’ could determine who lands the prime ministerial jackpot .
Which perhaps explains why even the likes of an 85-year-old Bhairon Singh Shekhawat appear to be eyeing a possible long shot at the big prize. While Shekhawat’s ‘rebellion’ may be seen as the rantings of a geriatric leader in exile, the very fact that he has chosen to go public with his ambition is a sign that he, like many others, believes that the Prime Minister’s office has a large vacant sign on the door inviting all kinds of applicants.
The UPA, too, seems equally uncertain about how the prime ministerial stakes will finally play out. While conventional wisdom suggests that Manmohan Singh would remain the prime ministerial nominee, the ruling alliance has studiously avoided projecting him as their unanimous choice. This partly reflects the nature of the power-sharing arrangement at the Centre: the Prime Minister is a CEO appointed by the chairperson of the UPA board. Any decision on who should be the Prime Minister can only be taken by the chairperson. Till Sonia Gandhi officially announces Dr Singh as the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate, we must wait for the election results. Moreover, with the UPA too extremely unlikely to close in on a parliamentary majority, post-election allies could well determine the prime ministerial choices.
As a result, the voter is faced with the distinctly discomfiting prospects of a Prime Minister being chosen through drawing room negotiations, not popular support, through individual whim and not voter preferences. A post which in a constitutional democracy should be the ultimate barometer of leadership skills could now be decided by arithmetic jugglery revolving around political immorality of the worst kind. In the process, the PM’s office could end up further diminished, its authority further eroded by the compulsions of rickety coalitions.
Post script: While Barack Obama promises to restore dignity to the US president’s office, on the eve of our 59th Republic Day, we are faced with a post-poll scenario where we might even have a rotating prime ministership: two-and-a-half years of a Mayawati-like leader and the remaining offered to the highest bidder. The ghost of Nehru and our founding fathers seems fated to eternal unhappiness.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-Chief, IBN Network