Who Will Be PM: Rahul, Chidambaram, Modi Or…?
Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of PM seat cannot be taken as final, and don’t ignore Dr Singh
What’s happening? It is perplexing not only for political commentators but also for Congressmen. Why is P Chidambaram being touted as Prime Minister? The latest was in Outlook of March 11, in which “Prime Minister Chidambaram?” was written across his smiling face on the cover. The same weekly, like other periodicals and TV channels, which had in the past surveys done about people’s preference for the high chair of Prime Minister, never gave Chidambaram’s name as one of the options.
So far it was taken for granted that for the Congress Party Dr Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister and Rahul Gandhi was the Prime Minister-in-waiting. This was further confirmed at the Jaipur Chinan Shivir when Rahul was declared vice-president of the party and made in-charge of election campaign for 2014.
Why then has Chidambaram’s name cropped up, and on whose prompting?
Three months ago the Economist of December 1, 2012, had brought up his name for the high post in a long article on him. “An unexpected figure is emerging as the most powerful politician in India’s government” and added, “He has always looked like the cat that got the cream. Now Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s Finance Minister, may feel he can start lapping.
“Chubby-cheeked, bespectacled and often sporting a self-satisfied, feline grin, the 67-year-old Mr Chidambaram….. Long a cabinet minister, it was assumed that as a big-brained southern Tamil with a posh English accent and almost no voter base, he could not hope for the highest party or government post. Yet, since “PC” (he loathes his other nickname, “Chids”) returned to the Finance Ministry in August, his fortunes have brightened.”
The magazine then lists a series of reforms he introduced for welfare of the less-advantaged, something which warmed the heart of Sonia Gandhi. Possibly, shrewd that he is, he aimed to do exactly that. At Jaipur Chintan Shivir, he played another win-hearts card. Earlier opposed to the biometric scheme, Chidambaram at the Shivir hailed it as the flagship programme of the second term of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“He even used a speech on the subject at Jaipur at his first-ever public address completely in Hindi.” This was another strategic move. He let the leadership know that he could address in Hindi, which is most important if one has to win voters in the north, literally a political cauldron.
His opportunity brightened earlier when his fierce critic and rival Pranab Mukherjee was sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Later, Sushil Kumar Shinde, another loyalist of Sonia Gandhi, after being made Home Minister turned out to be suffering from foot-in-mouth disease, which appeared incurable in his case. Another trusted and confidant of Sonia Gandhi, AK Antony is self-effacing and is too old to learn Hindi. Chidambaram’s name is at least known across the country, albeit not in rural areas.
With all other trusted leaders out of the way, Chidambaram emerges as an ideal back-up in case Rahul does not wish to come to the front, which he was expected to do. He has said that he does not want a position either in the party or in the government. He wants to do “Nishkaam Seva”.
But according to some Congress leaders, he is increasingly getting concerned about his party. At Jaipur he exuded confidence to be able to tone up the party to be battle-ready. But he quickly realised the reality that to rebuild an organisation, which is in utter disarray, and find regional leaders having credibility and following were time-consuming projects.
He might be disappointed but he realises that his party is in no shape to fight adversaries like Narendra Modi, if he is selected as Prime Minister-nominee by the BJP. It has cadres of its own apart from the network of RSS workers. Then Modi is a rabble-rouser, there is at present no better public speaker in Hindi than him.
This is why Rahul has possibly given up his opposition to pre-poll alliances, knowing that his party cannot all alone secure many seats. But he knows more parties would be willing to support Congress than BJP.
In that eventuality, the Economist with remarkable reading of Indian politics wrote, “And though Sonia Gandhi expects health permitting, to hold on to backroom power, she needs partner to front the show. If she trusts him, Mr Chidambaram may fit the bill.” This led to discussions about the possibility of Chidambaram becoming to Rahul what Manmohan Singh is to Sonia Gandhi.
But the Economist article was fading from the memory. But then three months after the Economist, Outlook came out this month with the possibility of Sonia Gandhi choosing Chidambaram to keep the seat hot for Rahul.
Most say that Rahul is being shielded from blame game, which would start if with the anti-Congress wave threatening to turn into a tornado, the party fails to win near the number of seats in the present Lok Sabha. But as against 206 in the current Lok Sabha even if the Congress wins only 140 seats, it would be enough for it to form the government. In 2004 too, the Congress had around 145 seats.
All other parties would join it taking the coalition number far more than the number the UPA 2 has. But if the Modi-led NDA—with or without Nitish Kumar—wins anywhere near 190 or 200 seats, many of the prospective allies of the Congress Party would forget about their secular ideology—which in cases of most parties is an electoral stunt—and veer round the NDA.
In that case, Rahul, if he sticks around, would become leader of the opposition. Chidambaram would nowhere be on the scene. But in case Modi does not get near 190 seats, the Congress would be the single-largest and would try to form UPA 3.
The question again arises would Sharad Pawar, Mulayam Singh Yadav or K Karunanidhi of DMK accept a young Rahul as their leader? With 206 seats in the present Lok Sabha, Congress could dictate its terms but not when its 206 seats slide down to a lowly 60 or even 70.
This is when Sonia Gandhi would need a front man. Manmohan Singh would still be around and might be a compromise prime minister of the coalition. But if he is not accepted by the party itself—and by India Inc, the influence of which one must not forget) then Chidambaram will fit the bill ideally. But he would need to become an MP.
Hurdles in that are pretty formidable. First, he has to win the election petition against him. One hears that most of the evidence and witnesses have been examined. After that the next hurdle will be his election. Jayalalithaa would try her best to get him defeated. And lastly, his party after the polls has to be in a position to get its nominee as the leader of a coalition.
It is, however, very much possible that the anti-Congress wave blowing across the country could subside somewhat because of the attractive reforms like money direct to the recipient, and other spate of measures to please the so far alienated middle class. Congress could get more votes than expected at the moment.
Its main opposition, the BJP, is still embroiled in internal feuds. Its senior leader LK Advani, instead of being a mentor and ironing out differences, seems so frustrated that he is scathingly criticising his party and causing body blows to BJP. He said that the people are still not happy with it. What can be more demoralising? His trusted ones would too, taking the cue from him, try and sabotage anyone nominated as prime ministerial candidate. Advani and his group would try to drag down Modi as well. The Congress would naturally help them.
Sources say that the Congress might appoint a team comprising leaders from different regions with Rahul as overall in-charge, flying from one place to another, for campaigning. This would be a good strategy, Rahul would get ground support from the regional leader, even if they are not in the class of a Pant or a Kher or a Shukla.
But the Congress would have to match any new ideas for campaigning which would surely be brought by Modi, because he would have to forget his winning formula for Gujarat and come up with strategies to win voters from various regions.
The two major parties, the Congress and the BJP, have been status quoits for decades. A big new idea is, as it is needed, to entice over 480 million young voters who are aspirational, impatient and eager to stamp their ideas and gain political influence. There is however one problem. Neither the BJP nor the Congress can form government on its own. Then either of them would have to stick to the old issues, identity and social justice to get the support of other parties to form a coalition.
Yet, Rahul cannot depend on secularism to attract voters of all castes and community. He has to forget communalism vs. secularism approach, which took him nowhere. He has to dare and give it bye.
Shrewd Modi would try to break the status quo, which suits the Congress. His style of making fun of rivals and aggressive style makes him a very good orator, who enthuses voters in Gujarat. But for campaigning in the rest of the country he would have to try and get a substantial percentage of Muslim voters and present himself as a strong, decisive administrator, who will ensure development, boost economy, get rid of corruption, control inflation, ensure security and safety of women. In short, he has to change his game and smoothen his rough edges and stop Congress-bashing. It is to be seen whether he has the ability to transform himself.
In such a background, Rahul and not Chidambaram can match Modi. He can reach the voter in the north better than Chidambaram, who cannot be fluent in Hindi and his accent would at best resemble Sonia Gandhi’s.
It is not yet all lost for Rahul nor as yet is it roses all the way for Modi. Politics is in a state of flux, one is unsure when another scam surfaces and proves catastrophic for the UPA. One is unsure when DMK or SP or BSP decides to ditch the Congress Party. More worrying for Sonia Gandhi could be the emergence of Modi with the backing of the cadre and the middle class, which is livid because of the ever- increasing cost of living, insecurity, violence against women and a total lack of direction and governance.
By Vijay Dutt
(The author is a veteran journalist)