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Small players fancying for PM post
Published on 12 Mar. 2009 12:52 AM IST
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In 1996, after Congress was bowled out of power, who became PM? Deve Gowda. He wasn’t the first choice, though, of the hastily cobbled United Front. V P Singh dodged the offer, Jyoti Basu was hobbled by his party and Chandrababu Naidu said he needed to work in Andhra Pradesh first. So it was Gowda, riding on 16 Karnataka MPs in a block of 46 Janata Dal MPs. Chandra Shekhar’s 54 MPs was better. But in this election another Gowda might happen — perhaps someone like Naveen Patnaik or Nitish Kumar — with still smaller numbers. In fact, as the polls barely get underway, leaders of these smaller parties are fancying their chances. The reason is not far to seek. NDA might see itself as the main challenger, but its driving force, the BJP, has suffered a setback even before the first shot was fired with the BJD jumping ship. With BJP weak in crucial states like UP, it is now in disarray. On the other side, Congress may not emerge in great shape as it struggles in states like UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Keeping in mind political allergies and personality clashes, larger satraps like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalithaa may find the going tough as they end up cancelling each other out. It’s expected that if neither UPA nor NDA can stitch up the requisite numbers, Third Front stakeholders are more likely to settle for a PM candidate whom they fear the least. After Sitaram Kesri forced Gowda out, Mulayam Singh was a front-runner till Lalu Prasad and Sharad Yadav tripped him. There was also talk of G K Moopanar becoming the first Tamil PM until Karunanidhi made it clear that he was not going to receive a “junior” at Chennai airport. Things could be similar this time. If UPA doesn’t make it but is in a position to prop up a “secular” non-BJP government, its known distaste for both Mulayam Singh and Mayawati might come in its way in endorsing either, even though Mulayam or Mayawati might have bigger numbers than, say, a Navin Patnaik. The same considerations may also work against ambitious allies like Sharad Pawar. The NCP boss is networking for all he is worth, but it’s not just Congress that’s wary of him. Other parties too fear that once he gets hold of the levers of power, it may be virtually impossible to dislodge him. So, in such a scenario, Nitish Kumar or Navin Patnaik might appear more acceptable as likely leaders of a Third Front. Prime ministerial perpetuals like Ramvilas Paswan would also hope that fear of a larger challenge posed by parties like SP and BSP could lead the Congress to consider them in more a favourable light. After Gowda quit, there were many eying the top gaddi — Mulayam, Lalu, Paswan, Biju Patnaik but it was the nondescript I K Gujral who made it. Why? As a JD leader had put it then, with heavyweights cancelling one another out, it was a “weak, grey horse” that could find widest approval. In more ways than one, things might be headed in that direction if numbers for UPA and NDA don’t quite stack up. And quite a few are betting that they won’t.

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