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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

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Who will be the next PM?

August 20, 2008

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Sharad Pawar is not known for making off-the-cuff statements. So when the Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union minister referred Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] -- twice in a week -- as the United Progressive Alliance's prime ministerial candidate for the 2009 polls, it raised many political eyebrows.

There was also a post-script to his statement -- that it was too early for Rahul Gandhi [Images] to take over the party reigns.

Pawar's expressed preference for the "Doc" with whom he has enjoyed a special equation since the early '90s -- he is probably the only senior leader in the UPA who is not close to 10 Janpath -- gives an insight into the Maratha leader's gameplan

Pawar's statements underline what has become a distinct possibility, though three months earlier it seemed remote. When Dr Singh's confidants urged him to take the bull by the horn  on the Indo-US nuclear deal, they argued that  he had "nothing to lose", for he was not likely to be repeated next time.

Sonia Gandhi [Images] will find it difficult to disown Singh, even if she wanted to. Asked on Independence Day whether Dr Singh could hoist the tricolour next year, she replied, "Why not?"

It can be argued that there was little else she could have said about an incumbent prime minister who belongs to her party, and who stood besides her.  She did not say, "Of course" or "Naturally", which would have been more apt.

As for Pawar's words about Rahul Gandhi, he may have been echoing what the young scion of the Gandhi family may himself feel -- that he needs time.

Sonia Gandhi may not disagree with that view in the given situation. It is likely that  the incumbency will dent the Congress's prospects,  the 15th Lok Sabha may be even more fractured than the present one, and the next government may not last very long. Having renounced the prime ministership in 2004, it is that much more difficult to project Sonia for prime minister.

That Sharad Pawar [Images] is rooting for Dr Singh -- earlier Amar Singh [Images] made similar noises -- does not mean that he will become prime minister if the UPA emerges victorious.

Even if the Congress maintains its present tally -- that is, if its pluses in Kerala [Images], Punjab, Madhya Pradesh [Images] and Rajasthan offset its minuses in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi [Images], Haryana and possibly Maharashtra -- its allies, particularly the Rashtriya Janata Dal and  Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are not expected to do as well this time.

That being the case, the secular parties will need the help of the Left to form the government, even if the Left tally gets reduced to around 35-40 seats. If the Left has anything to do with government formation, the chances of Dr Manmohan  Singh making it  to 7 Race Course Road again are bleak.

If there is a possibility of a Third Front leading the government, there will be several contenders for PMship -- Mayawati [Images], Sharad Pawar, Mulayam Singh Yadav [Images], Lalu Prasad, Chandrababu Naidu [Images], Nitish Kumar or someone who is a "dark horse" of the HD Deve Gowda or the IK Gujaral ilk. 

Mayawati is likely to emerge as the largest group amongst the regional parties. There are moves afoot to reinvent the United National Progressive Alliance and give it a new name, with Mayawati occupying a central place in this new formation. Chandrababu Naidu has been authorised to rope in new allies in addition to the 10 UNPA parties and will hold talks with Jayalalithaa.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist appears to have backed down on its open support to Mayawati as prime minister for tactical reasons, so that it does not put off other players. It is believed to have done so after taking her into confidence. The Congress can be expected to avoid backing Mayawati for the simple reason that it will knock the bottom out of the Congress's politics.

Much will hinge on who gets how many seats. Given his proximity to the Congress president, Lalu will hope that he will be Sonia Gandhi's first choice for prime ministership. But he is not expected to get the number of seats he had won last time.

Now that he is supporting the Congress and planning to forge an electoral alliance with it in Uttar Pradesh [Images], Mulayam Singh Yadav is also hoping to become more acceptable to the Congress. But Sonia still has reservations about the Samajwadi Party and Mulayam as such a move would finish the Congress's chances of revival in Uttar Pradesh.

Chandrababu Naidu was a contender for the top post in 1997 when HD Deve Gowda was dethroned. Today Naidu, though he is leading the opposition in Andhra Pradesh, has not taken off as expected and the situation in Andhra Pradesh has become even more confused now with the launch of Chiranjeevi's party.

The man who could emerge as a dark horse is Nitish Kumar, who is concentrating on his state. It is not impossible for the Congress to agree to support him and wean him away from the National Democratic Alliance.

One reason why Pawar may be rooting for Manmohan Singh is to earn his goodwill, and the backing of all those forces who support what Singh stands for, and paradoxically of those inside the Congress who would not want Singh as prime minister again. The recent launch of the "Saam" channel in Maharashtra by the Sakal group considered close to Pawar is being seen as a preparatory move by Pawar.

Pawar has the administrative experience, financial muscle, mass credentials, rapport with regional chieftains and the goodwill of Left parties to become acceptable in a certain situation. Much will naturally depend on the numbers the NCP manages to get in the next Lok Sabha.

Exhorting his partymen last week to go for the kill, Pawar expressed hope that it would be a 50:50 division of seats between the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra. In other words, he would get 24 out of 48 seats. 

Normally, Sonia Gandhi would not lend her support to Pawar who broke away from the Congress citing her foreign origin issue. But if she has to choose between Mayawati and Sharad Pawar for prime minister, who would be less damaging for her in the long run? Besides, Pawar's  lieutenants are a divided lot, and the Congress may hope to wean away a section of the NCP at a later date.

Pawar's statement about Manmohan Singh is one more sign of the positioning that is underway by political players for the Big Fight. The projection of Dr Singh as "PM again" is part of that exercise than anything else. 

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