Horse whisperers of Raisina


Beware the unlikely one

When does a horse in a race turn dark? It has nothing to do with colour, obviously. This occurs when a horse becomes both visible and invisible; not because it is out of sight, but because it is out of mind. Why would Mrs Sonia Gandhi consider a dark horse option in the race for President of India when the field is full of those who claim a fairer pedigree, and at least one of them, Pranab Mukherjee, would probably make it a one-horse race?

Because every contender in the many shades of white – pale, dawn-grey, ashen or saintly bright – carries the handicap of consequences. Now that paper-white Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, in his prim, half-uttered, half-implied manner, finally admitted that Rashtrapati Bhavan could be his finest retirement benefit plan, let us do a cost-benefit analysis from the perspective of Mrs Gandhi, who will take all the decisions, from initial to final.

She certainly realises that this tired, rudderless UPA 2 has crossed its sell-by date as far as the voter, tortured by inflation and incensed at corruption, is concerned. This would be an honourable exit for Dr Singh, creating the opportunity to attempt a desperately needed new beginning. Moreover, despite the fact that his ministers constitute the most unwholesome bunch to have ever shared a Cabinet table, Dr Singh is still broadly acceptable in a non-executive office.

Now for the bad news. Who can step into the chair to be vacated by Dr Singh? Dr Singh looks depressed now, except when he is abroad, but in 2009 he came as close to laughing in public as he ever has or will. Even at the height of his acclaim, there was never any debate over the heir, although there was uncertainty over when. At his first press conference, Dr Singh offered his chair to Rahul Gandhi at a moment’s notice. Rahul Gandhi should read Shakespeare: There is a tide in the affairs of men which when taken at the flood leads on to fortune. More prosaically, time and tide wait for no man.

After the Uttar Pradesh elections, the river went dry. Since hierarchy is non-negotiable in Congress, an interim Prime Minister can only be replaced by another interim Prime Minister. This is not a problem for aspirants, most of whom would be perfectly content even if they could become Prime Minister for a day.

The problem is that there are too many of them. Pranab Mukherjee is a natural successor; but Mrs Gandhi will hardly make him Prime Minister when she cannot trust him as president. A K Antony is closer to her comfort levels, but is hardly the inspirational orator who can command the winds to bend to his will. P Chidambaram could get the temporary job, but his reputation is swirling in the nether regions; not quite the right signal to send to a country in a punishing mood.

If Mrs Gandhi leaves the Cabinet alone, do her chances of victory in the presidential election improve? This, in practical terms, narrows her options down to chairs of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, Vice-President Hamid Ansari and Speaker Meira Kumar.

Both have their merits, but a different sort of handicap. Would they be acceptable to all sides of the one-issue coalition that Congress needs to elect a president? The present UPA has about 4,60,000 votes in an electorate of about 11,50,000. It needs to ensure the support of a semi-ally or two; Mulayam Singh Yadav is the swing factor who could be decisive. Mulayam Singh has hinted that he has a different Muslim candidate in mind, in which case Mrs Gandhi would have to accept his nominee as the price for his support. Meira Kumar would not be acceptable to Mayawati. Each variable has problems.

It was all so simple five years ago. An unknown Pratibha Patil sailed through because while Congress had fewer MPs, it had greater confidence thanks to better leadership and popular support.

A battered Congress in 2012 might find that when all the preening is over, Mrs Patil would be the least controversial runner. Mrs Patil’s reputation is frayed, but that is hardly hanging offence in a culture where politicians put a spell in jail on their cvs. Her most important qualification remains an unshakeable loyalty to Mrs Gandhi. Mrs Patil brings a formidable political advantage: Her candidature protects the status quo. Every other choice shifts some hinge in a structure whose foundations have eroded.

Mrs Gandhi could even reach out to Opposition with her name; Shiv Sena supported Mrs Patil in 2007 for regional reasons. She could tempt BJP with a quid pro quo offer for the vice-president’s post. Suddenly Mrs Gandhi has a dark horse which could trip early favourites, with a feint here and a dodge there. Mrs Patil has faded from public view, but she could be perched where it matters: In Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s thoughts. As they say, it’s the thought which counts.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.