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February 9, 1998


Pritish Nandy

The Men Who May Be PM

Who will be the next prime minister? That is the question everyone asks. But before you can give them an answer, they will tell you who they think should be in the job. The hottest favourite is Atal Bihari Vajpayee but this could change in the near few days. Because politics is fluid right now and no one seems to have made up his mind yet.

Like one day cricket, anything can happen at the last minute.

Among the various election shows we have been doing on Doordarshan there is one that has drawn the highest response. In this show, Javed Akhtar and I have been trying to draw out the main candidates for the nation's top job, to commit themselves on their specific agenda. If the response is any indication, the countdown is clear.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the favourite. Not because he is the hottest politician around but simple, because he seems to be the most likely winner. The Bharatiya Janata Party will most certainly be the single largest party voted into power and, if convention holds, the President will invite them -- as he did last time -- to form the government. If that happens, Vajpayee is the obvious choice. Plus, being a 13 day prime minister last time, he holds the sympathy vote. Give him a chance yaar, is the popular refrain. But will he get more than 13 days this time. If the others gang up to keep the BJP out, the answer is No.

Manmohan Singh is the dark horse, but I put him way up on my list because I suspect the Congress will now emerge as the second largest party in Parliament, whatever the numbers may be. The numbers will not be big enough for Sonia to come front as the prime ministerial candidate in a Congress-led coalition. In that case, if the Congress has any sense and wants to avoid internal bickerings, the candidate will be Dr Singh, who has an immaculate track record in and out of North Block. It is rumoured that Sonia also thinks so.

Jyoti Basu is the next candidate on my list simply because the Left Front has a steady, stolid vote bank that delivers them a consistent number of members of Parliament who can play a critical role in the event of a hung Parliament. What helps is that these MPs are not easily buyable like many of the others. They are stable, decent people and they vote by the party whip. So, if the Left Front plays an important role after the election as it did last time, Basu will not refuse the job as he did last time. He has said so clearly in all his interviews.

Mulayam Singh Yadav is another important candidate in the event of a hung Parliament. His Samajwadi Party may not do too well this time because it could not forge an understanding with the other secular parties in Uttar Pradesh. This will split the vote and many BJP candidates may romp home simply because of this strategic short-sightedness. Yet Mulayam Singh has stature and has narrowly missed the prime minister's job twice in the past 18 months. This time, if he makes peace with other Front leaders, he can walk off with the job.

Sonia Gandhi, in my view, is not making a serious bid for the job this time. I am, however, listing her here simply because everyone is running her neck to neck with Vajpayee in the polls. My view is that Sonia will not risk making a bid for the job unless the Congress gets 250 seats. Which, in my view, is impossible. That is why I believe her candidate for the job is Manmohan Singh, number 2 on my list. Her favourite, however everyone insists is Madhavrao Scindia but he is nowhere in the running right now.

Lal Kishinchand Advani is a person I would never rule out. He has openly stated, in every forum, that the BJP's official candidate is Vajpayee and usually Advani can be trusted in such matters. But Vajpayee is not a favourite with the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. He is not a favourite of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch either. They all prefer Advani because he is seen to be strong, inflexible, politically correct. If the BJP does better than we expect it to, these groups will jump into the fray and push very hard to get Advani into the top office.

Inder Kumar Gujral has been written off by all the pundits. But I think this is an over-simplification. The very fact that he is the caretaker prime minister and (unlike Deve Gowda) has few enemies and virtually no grassroot support of any kind, keeps him in the race for the top job. He has the capacity to move in any direction, join anyone, confuse issues and emerge as a consensus candidate. As Chandra Shekhar did when V P Singh's government fell. That is why he stays in the race albeit way behind the front rankers.

Kanshi Ram is another dark horse. There is nothing devious and cunning that he will not do and even though no one expects him to do very well this time because he has not aligned with either side, it is this very flexibility that is his strength. He is capable of joining anyone at any time for any reason. The BSP may get wiped out in this election or it could prove that, even if he stands alone Kanshi Ram enjoys the support of the Dalits. With Kanshi Ram no one knows. He is too smooth for words and can make anything happen.

Chandrababu Naidu is not doing too well in Andhra Pradesh. But he is the boss of the United Front and, in the event of a hung Parliament, will continue to play a crucial role in any coalition government formed. For those who may think that he has far too much of an outside chance, let me tell you that he missed the prime minister's job by a whisker last time. He was too busy trying to impress Andhra Pradesh and lost out on the opportunity, which Gujral grabbed. But if he does too badly this time, he may not have the clout to push hard.

Laloo Prasad Yadav was once the king maker. He made Deve Gowda the prime minister and never stopped to boast about it. So fed up was Deve Gowda with Laloo's swaggering that he encouraged the CBI to go for him. We all know what happened after that. A chastened Laloo now partners the Congress and is hoping to win most of his seats back in Bihar. If he does, under the adverse circumstances that he is currently under, Laloo will almost certainly swing back and become a force to reckon with. But will he? I doubt it.

There are many other wannabes. Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Sitaram Kesri, Deve Gowda and G K Moopanar to name a few. But, if you ask me this week, this is the current countdown listings. Next week, things might well change.

Pritish Nandy

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