Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri? Game on!

As the temperatures sharply dip in the national capital, the political heat is rising. The BJP’s defeat in three Hindi heartland states means that we enter a big general election year with a marked shift in momentum. A galvanized opposition, restive allies and murmurs of dissent within, suddenly the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly no longer seems quite so impregnable. With less than a 100 days to go before the Modi government seeks re-election, the signs of a creeping desperation to shift the narrative are visible: from a national farm income support scheme to an ordinance on Ram Mandir, to a triple talaq law, this is now a government looking for a potential game-changer in the final stretch. So what are the fascinating range of possibilities that lie ahead of us?

Modi-Shah Plan A: A repeat of 2014 when the BJP won 282 seats on its own seems near impossible but the BJP’s presiding leadership haven’t given up hope yet. The fact that the BJP vote share matched that of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan despite strong local anti-incumbency leaves open the outside chance of a Lok Sabha election throwing up a very different verdict to the Vidhan Sabha. The belief that a Modi versus Rahul presidential style contest can have only one winner is reason enough for the prime minister’s propagandists to shape the storyline as the ‘karmayogi’ kaamdar versus the privileged ‘naamdar’. With Uttar Pradesh remaining the key battleground, the focus on a ‘Hindu’ mobilization to counter a prospective Dalit-Yadav-Muslim caste-community re-alignment is being built as a parallel narrative with the allure of a Ram Mandir at the centre of the strategy.

Modi-Shah Plan B: The more likely best case scenario for the BJP’s power couple is for the party to atleast touch the 220 mark with new areas of growth being feverishly scouted in the eastern corner of the country to compensate for near-certain losses in the north and western regions. That the BJP leadership has ignored personal attacks from the Shiv Sena and rushed to placate an edgy Ram Vilas Paswan is evidence of a re-fashioned coalition dharma where the balance of power is shifting. While the BJP’s present allies appear to offer limited benefit, the search is also on for fresh partners in the future: anti-Congress regional potentates like a K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR) a Naveen Patnaik, a Jagan Reddy, are all seen to be part of a wider sphere of influence that could fashion a conceivable NDA 3 universe.

RSS Plan C: Should the BJP fall below the 200 seat mark, a no longer easily dismissable possibility, the sangh parivar leadership could consider the seemingly unthinkable: a BJP led government but without Mr Modi at the helm. That may appear to be a recipe for chaos within the ruling elite but maybe a preferable option for those who seek a less centralized, more consensual leadership style. Nitin Gadkari may insist that his recent comments have been misconstrued but they have also been made once too often to be seen as pure media mischief. Mr Gadkari has a precious quality for a politician in this coalition era: the ability to maintain friendships cutting across party lines. That he is from Nagpur and proximate to the RSS sarsanghchalak is no coincidence: close familial ties do matter in an organization as tightly knit as the brotherhood in saffron.

Rahul Gandhi Plan A: Unlike Modi-Shah and despite the chorus within of ‘Rahul for PM’, the Congress president seems to have no illusions about the limitations of the organization he leads. Having been reduced to just 44 seats in 2014, even a triple digit figure would be seen as evidence of recovery. A Congress party in the 100-120 range could push the BJP below the psychologically crucial 200 seat mark and make a Modi prime ministership unlikely. That it seems is Mr Gandhi’s priority for now as he seeks to build on the recent state assembly gains with a long term plan for 2024 in mind. This isn’t a party which can take on the BJP juggernaut on its own in 2019 but one which hopes that a lowering of ambitions will make it a magnet for regional groups who don’t feel threatened by a diminished Congress but are more adept at taking on an expansionist BJP.

Rahul Gandhi Plan B: If the Congress party crosses the 140 mark by some dramatic last minute push akin to the 2004 elections, then the BJP is in danger of slipping below the 175 seat mark. At this stage, the Congress maybe forgiven for entertaining leadership aspirations of its own in the belief that it could guide a coalition government. In this fluid scenario, Mr Gandhi may still not want the prime ministership for himself right away but prefer his own Manmohan Singh equivalent, either within or outside. The qualifications for such a post are obvious: a candidate who will never challenge the dominance of the First Family over decision-making (have you noticed the encomiums that Sharad Pawar showered on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi recently?).

Federal Front Plan A/B: The last time a non-Congress, non-BJP government was forged at the Centre was in 1996 when the two main national parties won 301 seats between them. If that combined tally dips now to below 300, as it did in 2004, then it opens up the possibility of regional satraps setting the agenda. These ambitious leaders may find it tough to agree on a consensus candidate amongst themselves but that alone may not be enough reason to prevent them from aiming high. Which might explain why KCR from a relatively small state like Telangana is piling up the frequent flier miles while meeting like-minded state chieftains. And which perhaps justifies the growing belief that the race for 7 Lok Kalyan Marg is no longer a done deal.

Post-script: If Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri is the flavor of the new year, rewind to 1997 when soon after Deve Gowda lost his prime ministership, a number of contenders emerged. Among them was the Tamil Maanila Congress chief GK Moopanar. When we asked the notoriously reticent Moopanar why he refused the top job when he was offered it, he blandly answered: “My Hindi is not good enough to lead the country!” Of such unexpected explanations are political futures determined. Which is why it maybe best to set aside the endless speculation and just wish everyone a ‘Happy News Year’!

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