No surefire winners in race to be PM

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

A curious feature of the political scene is that none of the parties has an inspirational leader. To make matters even more odd, there is a figure outside the political arena, viz. Anna Hazare, who partly answers to this description although he, too, has his detractors. Although India has had people who played a political role without formally being in politics, it has rarely faced a situation where the recognized parties do not have someone with a wide appeal.

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The Congress, for instance, has always had the Nehru-Gandhi family with its charismatic prime ministers. But today, while Sonia Gandhi has ruled herself out of contention for the post, her son, Rahul, does not seem to have measured up as yet to the high demands of the office.

On the other side of the fence, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s retirement has robbed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of someone whose influence was not confined to the Hindutva brigade. As a result, the BJP is in an even worse position than the Congress, which at least has both Rahul and Manmohan Singh although they are not surefire winners.

The leadership vacuum in the BJP has encouraged more than one individual to throw his hat in the ring, stymieing the chances of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the party’s leaders in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, who were earlier thought to be the frontrunners in the internal tussle for the prime minister’s post.

But now the entry of two others – L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi – has muddied the waters. Advani’s case is the strangest of all. Despite his obvious desire to be prime minister and although he is still the party’s tallest leader, the BJP is wary of his ambition. It isn’t only his age or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) reservations about him in the wake of his praise of Jinnah that are against him.

There is something else. It is either Advani’s failed efforts to be a moderate a la Vajpayee or the resultant belief in the BJP that he is malleable – as his metamorphosis from being a fiery rath yatri in 1990 to an admirer of Jinnah showed. In any event, till Modi’s emergence as yet another contender, both Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley were engaged in internal manipulations to marginalise Advani, as was evident from his nomination as head of the parliamentary party even after he expressed his wish to be the opposition leader in the Lok Sabha till 2014.

Despite his claim that his latest rath yatra has nothing to do with his quest for the prime minister’s post, there is little doubt that if the scene appears propitious enough (for instance, if the Congress’ fortunes suffer a precipitous decline), Advani will be there in the front row.

The question is whether Modi will also be by his side, for the latter’s show of compassion for the riot victims of 2002 suggest that he is trying to put on a mask, a trick which Vajpayee was said to have perfected. Modi’s problem, however, is that his appeal is limited only to sections of the saffron brotherhood since the RSS is unlikely to look kindly at his attempts to reach out to Muslims, who represent an “internal threat”, according to the outfit’s mentor, Guru Golwalkar.

Unlike the BJP, which is torn between four PM wannabes, the Congress has two candidates, but neither seems capable of bringing the voters in droves to the polling booths. The present incumbent, Manmohan Singh, has undermined his own case by failing to assert himself, either through proactive steps to check corruption or to push ahead with his USP, the economic reforms.

His inexplicable silence on issues on which he is the fittest person to speak – such as inflation or the imperatives of nuclear power – has spread the perception of his excessive diffidence or, worse still, the need to get a clearance from Sonia Gandhi before he can express his views. As a result, Manmohan Singh seemingly confirms the adage that nice men finish last.

After the Congress’ two successive victories in 2004 and 2009, its success in 2014 was taken for granted along with Rahul’s coronation. The outlook now is somewhat cloudy. First, no one can bet on the Congress’ victory although it is difficult to see the BJP getting its act together to pose a serious challenge. Nitish Kumar could have been a formidable candidate if the BJP and the RSS were behind him. But they will be hesitant to do so.

Secondly, Rahul remains too much of an enigma to be a credible contender. His views on the economy or the quota system or foreign policy are unknown. If his quietness is the result of his youth and inexperience, he can scarcely be thought of as a prime minister.

(24.09.2011 – Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])