Kaun Banega PM? Watch on May 16
By M J Akbar
Sharad Pawar, it has been suggested, has thrown a cat among the pigeons by opening a can of prime ministers. He may have done something more worrisome than that. He may have thrown a pigeon among the cats.
Parties separated by geography, history, personality and ideology (or the lack of it) seem agreed on only one thing: that Manmohan Singh has had his moment. The NDA view is explicable; it has its own candidate in L K Advani. But why do politicians who have served in Singh’s cabinet for the last five years believe that they should get the job for the next five?
Marxists dislike Singh with exactly the same fervor that Singh dislikes Marx. The Left has a second reason for demanding a new order, which has not been widely recognized, far less appreciated. The Congress has accepted all conditions laid down by allies in order to forge anti-Left unity in Bengal and Kerala. But it refused to be equally accommodating to allies in key states where such unity could have hurt the BJP, whether in Jharkhand, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The Left sees a double game behind the Congress rhetoric.
The only nationally-known politician who has not cast an eye on Singh’s job is Karunanidhi, possibly because he can foresee the results of Tamil Nadu. Even the Congress is ambivalent. On the record, Singh remains the once-and-future PM. In its ads, the transition has taken place from Rajiv Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi.
In theory, the bidders in this auction house cannot be faulted. The prime minister is only the first among equals in a democracy, hence there is merit in the argument of meritocracy. But there has been a caste system in the UPA, with the Congress using its Brahmin status to seize all the major offices of state, and all the important instruments of state authority. Pawar, who made a serious bid to become Congress prime minister in 1991, was sent to the comparative wasteland of agriculture. The price of 58 months of silence is two months of questions.
Ambition is not restricted to one party. It is hardly a secret that the most vociferous defender of the government in this campaign, Pranab Mukherjee, would not mind becoming prime minister himself. If Congress numbers are fewer than its well-paid pollsters predict, Mukherjee’s name will be mentioned by allies, even if it is eventually rejected by his own party. This is why he plays word-games on whether he has an alliance with Mamata Banerjee or a seat-arrangement. The implication is that an alliance is a marriage while a seat-arrangement is flirtation. One of the many difficulties facing the next version of the UPA is that the Left will not support a government with Mamata in it, and vice versa. It was all so much easier when Mamata was such a good friend of the BJP. Her conversion to secularism is terribly inconvenient.
The path of ambition is paved with more than one theory. The simple one is the purchasing power of numbers. You have to bring MPs to the bargaining table if you want to sustain your claim. People underestimate Sharad Pawar when they think his numbers are only restricted to Maharashtra. He has received verbal assurances from other parties, some of which may even be sincere. But each assurance is subject to post-poll reality. Naveen Patnaik may want Pawar as PM, but that will be a secondary concern if he cannot get a majority in the Orissa Assembly. He will have to worry about who, between BJP and Congress, will want him as chief minister. A quid pro quo will be attached to the answer.
The second theory is more piquant. It believes in survival of the weakest. This least-resistance model has been tried and tested on Inder Gujral and H D Deve Gowda in the early days of the coalition era. It is a variation of the old hare-and-tortoise fable, in which the backrunner will be the only person in the race when the frontrunners have cancelled themselves out. In this scenario, a powerful personality will be perceived as too much of a threat to one or more of the partners, leaving Mr Humble Smiley the eventual winner.
But such tortoises are heroes of fables. Every contender has a right to dream till 8am on May 16. That is the hour at which the wake-up call will sound.
Appeared in Times of India - April 26, 2009