Wisdom appears to have dawned on the Congress leadership at the very beginning of Navaratri this year. No, there is no sarcasm intended; when flying back to India, the prime minister told the assembled media that it was too early to talk about the Congress's prime ministerial candidate and that there were "several party leaders who are equally or better qualified".
I don't really agree with that last statement. Following the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal -- the fine print is still being negotiated as I write -- I think Dr Manmohan Singh stands head and shoulders above the rest of his party. With the caveat that both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi command greater influence both inside and outside the party, it is hard to think of a better Congress candidate. (Please note that both the Congress president and the MP for Amethi have both clarified, repeatedly and publicly, that Dr Manmohan Singh is their own preference.)
This is good news because it means that senior members of the United Progressive Alliance -- the prime minister and the UPA chairperson -- have implicitly accepted that democracy requires clarity. The Congress enjoys a healthy history of telling the voters well in advance of election day exactly who shall lead the government should the party win.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the candidate in 1952, 1957, and 1962; Indira Gandhi led the party in every general election between 1967 and 1980; Rajiv Gandhi was the party's choice thereafter until he was assassinated. You could argue that even P V Narasimha Rao was not a surprise in 1991 because he had followed Rajiv Gandhi as the Congress president, and he was definitely the clear choice in 1996.
This tradition was in keeping with the practice in other leading democracies. German voters knew in the last election that either Angela Merkel or Gerhard Schroder would be the chancellor. Both Barack Obama and John McCain underwent a rigorous primary campaign before they earned the right to be the standard-bearers of their respective parties. There are months to go before an election is called in Britain, but voters there already know that David Cameron is to lead the Conservatives while Gordon Brown will head the Labour ticket. (Should Brown be upset in a party putsch the electorate will still get to know about the Labour leader before a single ballot is cast.)
Sadly, the years after 1996 saw that clear choice being denied to voters in the world's largest democracy. Yes, we knew that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would move into Race Course Road if his alliance came to power. But we never knew who his opposite number would be in the general elections of 1998, 1999, and 2004.
The Congress was so unsure of itself in those years that it turned its back on the tradition established by Pandit Nehru, indulging in mealy-mouthed rubbish about the right of MPs to choose a leader after the elections. This was always silly, MPs can offer support to a leader -- or suffer the consequences if they do not so choose -- but the actual choice must be made by the people at large.
The Congress's confusion proved to be the marsh in which the weeds of the Third Front thrived. Is there anyone who thinks that either H D Deve Gowda or I K Gujral possessed the moral authority of a popular mandate? This opened the door for ambitious 'allies' to subvert the authority of their own prime minister, and this of course was precisely what happened.
Let us also be honest and admit that Dr Manmohan Singh was certainly not the choice of the people of India in 2004. The office fell to him by default after Sonia Gandhi, the clear alternative to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, declined for reasons of her own. Predictably, this led to massive drift and confusion with senior ministers pursuing their own ambitions. (HRD Minister Arjun Singh may have been the most notable but he was scarcely unique.)
The next general election must be held by May of 2009, and we already appear to have a clear choice. The National Democratic Alliance announced that L K Advani will be the prime minister should it come to power. Now, there is a fair degree of clarity that Dr Manmohan Singh shall lead the United Progressive Alliance if it should be returned to office.
How about the Third Front? Transparency is no friend of the Third Front! I am hoping, however, that common sense prevails and that the openness of the BJP and of the Congress forces the Third Front also to declare its candidate. This, I suspect, could well be Mayawati, given the Uttar Pradesh chief minister's ambitions and her clout in India's most populous state.
Besides, there really isn't any reasonable alternative for the Third Front, is there? Prakash Karat may lead the largest group in the putative Third Front but can you imagine the CPI-M general-secretary campaigning to be the prime minister of India? And who else is there, Deve Gowda again?
There is a tradition at 10, Downing Street that the domestic staff line the stairs and applaud after a new prime minister enters after kissing hands at Buckingham Palace. The catch is that this is done only if he enters after leading the party to power in an election, not if he simply replaces someone midway through the life of the House of Commons (as Gordon Brown did when he succeeded Tony Blair).
It is an implicit recognition that the new prime minister is the choice of the people, not someone who has struck a deal behind closed doors.
There is no such tradition, as far as I know, at Race Course Road.
But we don't need to wait for a general election, let us applaud both the BJP and the Congress for upholding democratic values, and giving us two fine candidates for prime minister in the form of L K Advani and Dr Manmohan Singh.