THE BATTLE CRY
With the Mood of the Nation Poll predicting a photofinish, regional chieftains are likely to play a key role in the selection of the next prime minister. It could even be one of them.
The complaint is as old as the politics of social justice: the hegemony of urban elite over the wretched and the dispossessed. Votaries of the so-called Other India—the India beyond the sensations of the Sensex and the temptations of the marketplace—never get tired of narrating the conspiracy of the privileged.
Twelve of our 14 prime ministers, they keep reminding us, have been from urban India. Only two, H.D. Deve Gowda and Charan Singh, came from the peasant class, and both were accidental. Now that the politics of cohabitation has made India one of the most crowded—and politically promiscuous—democracies in the world, the sociology of power has become starker.
There are no clear winners in a fragmented verdict but contenders for the top job continue to multiplyThe most obvious trend in the India Today Mood of the Nation poll on the eve of the General Elections is the shrinking bipolarity—or the thriving multiplicity. There are no clear winners as the ruling UPA and the NDA are separated by only 19 votes. The middle is occupied by that amorphous group called Third Front, populated by provincial pachyderms who think their time has come to be the rulers of India. If they can’t, they will decide who will. It may not be the revenge of the regions but it certainly brings out the less-than-national appeal of the national parties.
The only certainty in a fragmented polity is that we have an embarrassment of prime ministerial riches. In the beginning, there was only one, and BJP leader L.K. Advani has been campaigning in true presidential style, that too without an identifiable opponent.
Much belatedly, and less ceremoniously, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said Manmohan Singh would get another term as prime minister if the UPA won the elections. She can only name him, she just can’t make him prime minister. Without the support of regional parties with more than 70 members, either Advani or Manmohan can’t become prime minister. That support can no longer be taken for granted as kingmakers now aspire to be kings.
As Lalu Prasad Yadav, a Sonia worshipper-turned-heartbreaker, said in an interview with the television channel Aaj Tak, “The UPA exists only in Delhi and why can’t we consider Ram Vilas Paswan, a Dalit leader, for prime ministership after the elections?” Then, why just Paswan? Why not Pawar? The NCP has been projecting its leader and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar as a future prime minister for a while.
He will share a platform with CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat and Orissa Chief Minister and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik at a rally in Bhubaneswar on April 13. That is the freedom of being Pawar. His party is fighting the Congress everywhere except his home state of Maharashtra and Goa. The strategy of each regional party is to contest maximum number of seats so that they can improve their tally of 2004. Obviously, both the Congress and BJP are anxious, and they may end up fielding more candidates than they did in 2004.
The poll provides little cheer to the Congress and BJP. Parties which belong to neither of the two alliances are likely to get almost the same number of seats as the others. Leaders like Lalu, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Paswan, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and the communists are an independent lot. Pawar’s feet may be on the UPA ground but his heart is elsewhere. And each of these satraps is worth 25 to 30 seats, and their combined strength could go up to 180. Still, they are too volatile a group to remain intact. Will Maya and Mulayam ever be compatible? Unlikely. A candidate sponsored by the so-called Third Front led by the Left and others can’t reach 7 Race Course Road without the support of either the Congress or the BJP. In the marketplace of prime ministers, choices are many and the art of bargain alone can ensure a politically profitable deal.
How come we have got so many choices—or so many competing ideas of India in the fray? The UPA has been particularly fertile for prime ministers in waiting. Leaders like Lalu and Pawar have acquired a national profile as star Cabinet performers. They used their power at the Centre to expand their regional base. For the UPA, the vote of confidence was the moment when it realised the true worth of its allies. It survived the vote because partners like SP, RJD and DMK not only kept their flock together but broke the ranks of others.
It gave the allies a new confidence. As the poll illustrates, all those regional leaders seeking national glory enjoy more support in their states than the prime ministerial candidates of both the national parties. Mayawati with 24 per cent votes and Mulayam with 21 per cent are way ahead of both Advani (11) and Manmohan (7) in Uttar Pradesh. For the voters of Bihar, Lalu or Nitish Kumar would make a better prime minister than Advani or Manmohan.
With 120 seats, these two states will play the arbiters after the elections. In Gujarat, Modi is the choice of over 40 per cent of voters: Advani gets only 3 per cent. In Maharashtra, Pawar is the second most popular candidate for the top job. In the South though, Manmohan scores over the likes of Gowda, Jaya, Karunanidhi and Chandrababu Naidu. When Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were in power, there were no regional leaders who could match—or come anywhere near their popularity.
This regional eruption in leadership also means the rise of so many little Indias. Post-election, India is all set to stage a thriller of mathematics and megalomania, of oversized prime ministerial ambitions and total repudiation of political morality.