What happens when Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party woos the Shiv Sena’s patriarch Bal Thackeray with cut glass and high-quality watches? Does Pawar become communal or does Thackeray become secular?
What do Rahul Gandhi and Sharad Pawar discuss when they are on a sight-seeing tour of the excellent work being done in Pawar’s factories? Do they stick to the welfare of the local community and the potential for agro-businesses? Or do they also discuss which one of them could become Prime Minister in case Dr Manmohan Singh thinks, once the votes are in and the verdict is the expected mishmash, that he simply does not feel healthy enough to carry the burden of a Cabinet that consists not of equals but of opposites? I can’t imagine that they would be saying “Pahle aap” to each other. In fact, a close confidant of Pawar, Govindrao Adik, might have indicated what is on the former’s mind by suggesting that Rahul Gandhi should be an apprentice — a sort of trainee Prime Minister — for ten years under Pawar so that he can understand the fibre of the ropes that bind this nation.
Sharad Pawar is not alone in declaring his bid for the Prime Ministership after the 2009 general elections. Lalu Yadav has not hidden such ambitions, although he may be hampered this year by the awkward possibility that his party’s tally may not enter double digits. The thought also seems to have crossed the mind of his Bihari colleague Ram Vilas Paswan. Leaders outside the UPA have been a shade more discreet, but lack of transparency should not mean that they would not grasp at the chair if the mildest glimmer of a chance came their way. H.D. Deve Gowda is surely checking up on the number of auspicious days in May with his astrologer. In fact, the only person not checking up with any astrologer is probably the declared NDA nominee for the job, L.K. Advani, not because he doesn’t the job but because he doesn’t want to be near astrologers.
Compare this with the situation five years ago. The parties that later created the UPA, including the Congress and its electoral allies, entered the last general election without anyone in the starring role of potential Prime Minister. Mrs Sonia Gandhi was hesitant; Rahul Gandhi was too young; and no one else was bothered by the thought.
What does this rash of potential PMs indicate? First, Pawar and leaders of the middle space between the Congress and the BJP seem quite confident that neither the Congress nor the BJP will get enough seats to become the uncontested claimants for the post. It is natural for a politician like Pawar to feel that parties against him — in this case the BJP — will lose. What is significant is that he should feel that the Congress is sinking. If Pawar thought that the Congress would get 160 seats, or even retain what it has in the present Parliament, he would not be wasting his breath or pumping up the expectations of his party.
He is also very certain that without a substantial victory the Congress will not be able to claim the office for Rahul Gandhi. He is equally sanguine that the present combination of the UPA will not get a majority on its own, and therefore will need support from parties in the Third Front as well as in the NDA. He is sure that his personal contacts will make him the magnet for the next coalition.
He is unperturbed by ideology. The principal glue of the UPA was a common desire to keep the BJP out of office, but Pawar has jumped across the BJP and moved to its extreme by reaching out to the Shiv Sena. It will be interesting to see whether this affects Muslim support for him in the coming elections. It would be illogical if it did not, but then logic is not always the main motivator for the electorate.
One reason why this general election seems enervating rather than energising, or even enigmatic, is because of a growing consensus in the political class that it will be a fractured House with no clear winner. The results of 16 May are seen as a starting point on the road to power, not as a destination. The game has begun for the result of the results.
Is there anyone in the current playlist who could change the nature of the post-result game? Yes. Mayawati. This is not the first time that she is being underestimated. No one expected her to get a simple majority in the Assembly elections. Conventional wisdom is giving her around 35 seats. This was the projection made by the Times of India, which had the honesty to call it an opinion rather than fool us, as some media continues to do, by publicising opinion under the mask of an opinion poll. But her formula still has legs. All her Muslim candidates — and she has got some formidable names — will get their community’s vote. Despite talk to the contrary, the state’s Brahmins have not quite deserted her. Some fluctuations in the vote are inevitable from election to election, but there is no evidence that the broad pattern has changed drastically. Her supporters believe that her tally will be closer to 50 than 35. She is also going to damage the prospects of others in a crucial state like Maharashtra where the big boys are not taking her corrosive threat as seriously as they should.
Memories are poor. We tend to forget that the incumbent UPA government was a post-election phenomenon, patched together after the results were declared. The election of Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister was the surprise of the decade. Why should we be surprised if there is another surprise? Further thought: the prospect of the unusual should not blind one to the possible success of the usual. Since we are getting ready for a “surprise” we might be surprised if there is in the end no surprise. All options are possible. There could be many permutations before there will be a combination; and an existing combination could make permutations irrelevant.
The truth is that no one, not even someone whose life has been steeped in electoral politics, really knows what is going to happen on 16 May. We are all shooting arrows in the air, and if one of them lands on the target the lucky chap will pretend he has been an Olympic champion sharpshooter. Until the next elections.