Thursday, January 24, 2013

Now neither the Congress nor the BJP wants to name it’s PM candidate….

If ever there was evidence required that neither the Congress nor the BJP was confident about 2014 (irrespective of their public posturing), it is that neither party is willing to name a PM candidate before the elections. The Congress has never done so – with the exception of 2009 when it “indicated” that it would continue with Manmohan Singh – and has been often chided by the BJP for it. The BJP on the other hand has always given the impression that it will announce its PM candidate in advance. The speculation of late has been that that name would be Modi. Suddenly now, the party has turned coy. If Rajnath Singh, the new BJP President is to be believed, it is the “BJP Parliamentary Committee” that will choose the PM. Really? I thought that was the Congress stand; and the BJP was a “party with a difference”!!

Of course we understand what has prompted this sudden change in the BJP’s tune. The recent public embarassment over the appointment of its President has exposed clearly exactly what the party’s internal challenges are. The truth is in full public glare now – that its not like the party has a number of “options” for the PM’s job; rather, it has a lot of “claimants” or “competitors” for it!

One thing that the BJP won’t do in a rush is announce Modi’s name for the job. I have written several times about this. What is Modi’s strength in his home state is his biggest weakness outside it. By polarizing his state, which has a Muslim population of under 9%, on communal lines, he has managed to retain power for 3 consecutive terms. But the problem for Modi is that this strategy has been well publicized beyond the boundaries of his state. And that has made him one of BJP’s least desirable PM candidates. Nitish Kumar has been vocal about his opposition; but most others including Modi’s friend Jayalalitha, the TDP, the BJD, Mamata’s TMC and others also feel the same way though they don’t speak openly. It’s interesting. It’s said that “an enemy’s enemy is a friend”, but when it comes to Modi, none of the Congress’s “enemies” are willing to become the BJP’s friends!

For the Congress, it has to be a calculated gambit. My own reading is that the party will not make Rahul Gandhi the PM just yet. There is a reason for this. In his first stint as PM, Rahul would want the comfort of a strong electoral position in the Lok Sabha. He would be loathe to taking over if his party got less than 200 – 225 seats. At this point in time, he hardly has the experience of managing wily, fickle partymen, leave alone allies.

If the Congress’s numbers are small, I think the party will plump for Chidambaram as PM. Chidambaram is an astute politician; knowing the ways around the complicated labyrinth of power politics. He has one other big virtue. Also in an India newly sensitized to economic issues, Chidambaram would be better placed than Rahul Gandhi against a competitor like Modi.

Rahul is a visionary. He has charisma. When he speaks, people feel like he can lead them to a better place. He inspires trust. He has the ability to rise above petty political brawls. He is like the CEO of a company. Chidambaram in contrast is a efficient, hard working, focused and astute; an ideal COO. The CEO and COO work together in winning the Board’s (the public) trust. It’s not much different from the President-VP structure in the US. We’ve seen over the last 9 years that the Congress prefers to work through a split-leadership structure; Sonia as the Party President has been the CEO till date; MMS the COO. The same model could well work for Rahul and Chidambaram.

The trick would be for the Congress to “let it be known” without formally announcing it that Chidambaram would be its PM it it won power. Rahul would act as the crowd puller, especially in the Hindi heartland; while Chidambaram’s performance record would help him dent Modi’s if the BJP also “lets it be known” that Modi would be their PM. I know a lot of BJP supporters (actually fence sitters) who would vote for Chidambaram, just as they did for MMS, even though they may have disdain for the Gandhi surname.

Whatever happens, its interesting times ahead! Politics changes very quickly. A few months back, it looked like it was going to be the BJP all the way. But from September last year, the Congress has fought back. Gone is the policy paralysis, the diffidence, the inability to fight back. With the reforms push, Chidambaram has re-energized the party leadership back. And with Rahul ascending to the top of the party hierarchy (well, almost!), the lower rungs of the party are galvanized too. In the meanwhile, the BJP has suffered heavy blows – Gadkari’s corruption charges and eventual denial of a renewed term, Yeddy’s departure, Modi’s Lok-Ayukta loss in the Supreme Court……But who knows, it could all come undone in the next few months! Like cricket commentators often say during an exciting ODI “the match is evenly poised”!

The real truth is that given the dynamics of Indian politics (unlike the US, where out of 51 states, almost 40 are “steadfast supporters” of one or the other party), it is impossible for any party to know its fate in advance. Both the BJP and the Congress have conceded that they cannot get the requisite numbers on their own. In such a scenario, both parties will keep their cards close to their chest….and wait for the election results to emerge before choosing their PM candidates….

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