In reluctant Rahul’s wake

With a virtual famine of leaders, would the choice be someone like Finance Minister Chidambaram, who has no mass base, but is generally looked upon as a competent man, who can steer the ship of state more efficiently than Manmohan Singh?

In reluctant Rahul’s wake

Congress heir-apparent Rahul Gandh’s surprise assertion in a free-wheeling conversation with party members of Parliament and some journalists on Tuesday that he is not in the race for prime ministership, has added a new dimension to the high stakes battle that is now on between him and the BJP’s rising star Narendra Modi.

Is Rahul really serious about not throwing his hat in the ring, or is he merely playing the renunciation card that works so well in India, as his mother Sonia Gandhi played to good effect when she passed the mantle on to Manmohan Singh nine years ago, when the crown was for hers for the asking? Or is it a grudging realization that he is not a match for Modi’s oratory and political cleverness? These are questions whose answer only time will unravel.

While Modi’s popularity ratings are clearly growing, his detractors, whose numbers are substantial, are hard at work to deny him the reins of the country.

The withdrawal of the invitation to him to deliver the keynote address at the Wharton India Economic Forum through video-conferencing, which has been ascribed by the internationally-renowned American institution to “polarization politics,” is a grim reminder that the ride to prime ministership for him will be replete with roadblocks and potholes.

At one stage, the odds against Modi seemed overwhelming, but working as he is to a well-thought-out plan, the ‘impossible’ appears at least theoretically achievable.

His impassioned speech at the national council meeting of the party in New Delhi on Sunday was cleverly-crafted and an exercise in skillful oratory that has left the Congress groping for an answer.

By enthusing the cadres to a point where their clamour for him to be the NDA’s candidate for prime minister would reach a crescendo, Modi has made it extremely difficult for anyone in the BJP to oppose him or promote any other name for the coveted office.

Party veteran L.K. Advani has been throwing up the name of Sushma Swaraj directly as well as subtly, but there have been no takers. So much so that the octogenarian appears to have been cut to size.

In reaching out directly to the cadres, Modi has also been shrewd enough to praise other BJP chief ministers and leaders in lavish terms, hinting to them that he would not ride roughshod over them if the mantle falls on him.

Until Tuesday, the BJP strongman was acutely conscious that his real rival for prime ministership, once he gets past the party hurdle, would be the Gandhi family, with Rahul being his direct rival. With that in mind, he has been firing salvoes at them. His praise for former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, for having fired the imagination of demoralized farmers, who were in a deep state of despair when he took over the country’s reins, his dig at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for having held the prime ministerial chair in trust for Rahul as a ‘night watchman’ at the behest of Sonia Gandhi and his claimed conviction that Pranab Mukherjee would have made a better prime minister than Manmohan Singh but was denied the high office by the Gandhi family, were all directed at the current Congress leadership.

Clearly, since the time he was catapulted to power for another term as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has made the right moves. His earlier decision to address students of the Sriram College of Commerce in Delhi University, spurning the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s invitation to address the saffron congregation at the Kumbh Mela at the same time, sent out the right signals to the youth. His systematic wooing of businessmen and industrialists at the investor meets he spearheads every two years in Ahmedabad has already won him ardent supporters in business and industry.

Modi’s weak spot continues to be his role in looking the other way when angry mobs attacked minority Muslims in the wake of the Godhra train burning in 2002, but some sort of regret expressed closer to the elections could still transform a section of Muslims to gravitate towards him and away from the Congress, towards which they have been leaning perforce, for want of a better alternative.

It is the Muslim vote-bank’s antipathy towards him for his role in the 2002 riots that is making it difficult for the BJP to find enough friendly parties to support it, if he is a contender for prime minister and the elections throw up a hung Parliament with both the NDA and UPA vying for allies. Modi will be torn between the option to continue to seem a Hindu hardliner and the other option of holding out the olive branch to the Muslims by regretting the events of 2002 in unambiguous terms.

What is particularly helping Modi is the absence of a strong alternative to Manmohan Singh in the Congress. Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly betraying lack of drive and qualities of leadership. His reticence to speak out clearly on national issues had caused even his supporters to wonder if he would measure up to the task if he is foisted as prime ministerial candidate.

The question that has already been dogging Congressmen is that seeing Rahul’s lack of initiative and inability to match up to Modi in oratory and clever politics, will he measure up to the task? Now, with Rahul having expressed diffidence, will Sonia Gandhi come round to agreeing to be a more hands-on contender? With a virtual famine of leaders, would the choice fall on someone like Finance Minister Chidambaram, who has no mass base, but is generally looked upon as a competent man, who can steer the ship of state more efficiently than  Manmohan Singh has been doing? With Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde discredited as an incompetent minister, Sharad Pawar, unacceptable to Sonia Gandhi and Defence Minister Antony too soft and uncharismatic, does she have a choice?

Sonia Gandhi’s spin doctors would be hard at work to defame and damn Modi, but that they have been trying to do for years and despite that his popularity has been growing. Recent opinion polls have found him way ahead of Rahul Gandhi, though the BJP as a party is not gaining much ground.

The manner in which Chidambaram unabashedly wooed Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during his budget speech, holding out the possibility of giving Bihar special status in terms of central largesse, it would seem that the Congress is banking on Nitish leaving the NDA for the UPA, after the elections or even earlier because of his known antipathy towards Narendra Modi.

While Nitish would ostensibly want to be the UPA’s nominee for prime minister and may not accept a role under Rahul Gandhi, the Congress would rather see him in the driver’s seat as a last resort, than give up power to the BJP while it comes to jockeying for power through coalition politics.

Likewise, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar would perhaps not be averse to bargaining with the NDA in the event that he gets to be prime minister in the NDA’s last-minute quest to deny power to a Congress-led coalition.

Evidently, the Congress would prefer to be led by a Nitish Kumar than by Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati  or Sharad Pawar.

All this speculation would, however, come to nought if Rahul allows himself to be persuaded in typical Congress fashion.

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