Next general elections in India are due in 2019 when the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) completes its normal five year term. The biggest single question that is doing the rounds is whether BJP led NDA government will win a second term. There are many who believe that given the current national environment this may not happen and there are reasons to support this view. As they say news is when a man bites the dog and not vice versa. On the same analogy if the NDA gets a second term it will not really be news. The real news will be if they do not since that eventuality will bring forth a unique political scenario.
It may be fair to assume that BJP may still be the single largest party in 2019 even if it is not in a position to form a government. It will also be safe to assume that apart from the traditional NDA coalition partners, it is highly unlikely that any other party of substance will support BJP. Parties of substance will include Congress, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress (TC), Smajwadi Party (SP), Janta Dal United (JDU), Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD), CPI (M) and Bahujan Smajwadi Party (BSP). If Aam Admi Party (AAP) gains in next round of state elections in 2017-18, it too may qualify as a party of substance by 2019. While Congress may emerge as the largest party from among all these, it is unlikely that leaders of other parties in the list will accept Congress leadership easily since its numbers may not be enough to force the issue. This is where the Third Front scenario will emerge as a contender at the centre. Frankly Third Front is a rather respectable term for this hotchpotch scenario and it may be more apt to term it as a Stew Pot Scenario.
Just as various vegetables and meats simmer in a stew pot, leaders of various regional political parties will simmer in this political Stew Pot to seek leadership position. Once they realise that together they have that magical majority number, the tussle for leadership will come to the fore. While the number of seats won by any party may be an important consideration, it may not be the only one since some leaders may lay claim to the top post based on greater experience at the centre in the murky world of Indian politics. Leaders like Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh will fall in this category. But then there is likely to be a lot of woman power on display with Mamta Banerjee, Jayalalitha and even Mayawati being in the fray. Claims based on gender or caste may take a front seat instead of pure arithmetic. Dark horses like Biju Patnaik too will smell an opportunity and throw their hat in the ring to be accepted as a compromise candidate. Last but not the least can one ignore Arvind Kejriwal, particularly if his party gains ground in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat in the next round of state elections? Finally if by 2019 Lalu Prasad Yadav is exonerated by the courts of all the animal fodder that he has reportedly eaten, he too may emerge as a likely candidate since his seat tally and past experience as Union Minister may be difficult to ignore.
It is anybody’s guess if the Stew Pot’s leadership dilemma will ever be resolved given the unbridled aspirations of the leaders involved. The fact that all of them will score abysmally low on the suitability quotient will not matter. For most of them it will be fulfilment of a lifelong desire that they have always harboured deep inside. Please mark the use of the word desire and not ambition since the later pre supposes suitability unlike desire where the approach is based on the principle of ‘by hook or crook’. So if a clear leader does not emerge, it may boil down to collective leadership of the top few. Will the position of the Prime Minister become a rotational post with the PM’s chair suffering a new torso every New Year? Or will there be a Prime Ministerial Team (PMT), instead of a Prime Minister, comprising of many leaders from different parties?
Next crucial aspect will be the selection of the cabinet and Council of Ministers. This would in all probability be based on arithmetic of seats won in the Lok Sabha. Whatever be the logic of ministerial appointment, one thing is certain that it will become part of the Guinness Book of Records for the largest council ever. Portfolio allocation to Ministers will be an exercise in futility since vested interests of the various parties in the Stew Pot will never be addressed in full. Every time the ladle is dipped in the Stew Pot a new name will emerge with a long list of backers and detractors. The PMT will bicker over each selection and in the end each Ministry may land up with a Minister and many Deputy/ Assistant Ministers, with no two from the same party. This will ensure an automated system for checks and balances apart from providing each member of the PMT with ears and eyes in each ministry. In all likelihood many Ministers may have to move around with the tag of ‘Without Portfolio’ since there are only that many ministries where Ministers can be accommodated. North and South Block office buildings may have to add another floor on top to accommodate the extra office space needed for the enlarged Council of Ministers.
In the Stew Pot scenario the post of the speaker of the lower house by default may go to Congress since the party will have the most suitable candidate for that chair. The Stew Pot government, always in the simmering mode, is likely to be anarchic, chaotic and obstreperous in the house at all times. So the house will need a speaker who is like an ostrich with his head buried in sand to let things be at all times instead of evoking house rules and discipline. Without a doubt Dr Manmohan Singh, past master at ostrich like behaviour, would be an ideal choice. The only problem is that he has neither won an election nor is likely to do so in his life time. So may be a dispensation would be allowed by a Presidential order to co-opt a nominated member of the upper house to function as the speaker of the Lower House. The good old doctor may have some reservations in accepting the job since he was a Prime Minister in the same house a few years ago. But then the good offices of Sonia Gandhi, if she is still the Congress President, or Rahul Gandhi, the perennial Party President in waiting, can be solicited to coax the doctor to accept the chair of the speaker. Rest assured he will do so without a whimper just as he accepted the shadow Prime Minister’s chair in 2004 and stuck to it for ten long years.
Of course this whole Stew Pot concept can go wrong if Congress Party sees a reversal of fortunes and can garner a healthy hundred plus seats. This may give it an opportunity to stake a claim to form a coalition government with likeminded parties from the Stew Pot. It is indeed surprising how Indian political parties become likeminded and un-likeminded depending on the number of seats they win or the opportunity that they see to be in power. Frankly some of our politicians will put the proverbial chameleon to shame when it comes to changing colours. Without a doubt Congress will stake a claim to the Prime Minister’s chair in such a scenario and most likely partners may have no choice but to concede to that demand. It is no secret that today Congress has only one Prime Ministerial candidate as is well known and it is no brainer that it has to be a Gandhi, now that no Nehrus are around in the family. No Congressman worth his two penny worth of calcium devoid backbone will ever contest this axiomatic truth. The question is whether the nation can suffer this family promoted Prime Ministerial candidate who has proved not once, but many times, that the sum total of his political acumen, intelligence, leadership and administrative expertise can be fitted on the point of a needle with space to spare. Somewhere one has to concede that a country like India, with a multitude of complex problems and a population of 1.3 billion people, would certainly require much more than what this gentleman has to offer – a doting mother’s aspirations notwithstanding.
So will 2019 be a watershed year for the nation? If BJP led NDA government gets the nation’s mandate for a second term then possibly BJP would go on to stay in power even longer since by then Congress would have run out of steam totally with no hopes for revival. It would also mean that regional parties would remain regional with very little scope of breaking big nationally. Past experience shows that an Indian voter shows different patterns when voting for a government at the centre and when doing so for the state. Last elections in Bihar were a prime example of the same where BJP managed to get 22 of the total 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 but managed only a dismal 53 seats out of 243 in the state legislature a year later. Delhi too showed the same trend where BJP won all the seven Lok Sabha seats but could manage to win only three of the seventy assembly seats in the following year. So does this imply that the Congress party needs to pull up its socks to offer an alternate option at the centre? Frankly despite Congress’ obvious faults one hopes that it does but with a rider that the party must throw up some more credible leaders who have a mass connect instead of either a Gandhi name or the current set of leaders seeped from head to toe in the syrup of political sycophancy spread by the Queen Bee. As far as BJP is concerned its task is clearly cut out, but the question is will it find the right answers in the next two years to achieve credence with the nation as a whole?
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.