jump to navigation

The Fifteenth Prime Minister of India January 24, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

The Left Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the only non-dynastic, national, and ideological competitors of the Indian National Congress, are struggling with leadership and ideological crises. BJP’s national defence credentials have been compromised due to allegations of Hindu terror whereas the pro-poor credentials of the Left have been compromised in Singur and Nandigram. Regional parties like Shiva Sena and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are in disarray due to succession struggles within reigning families headed by ageing patriarchs. In contrast, the Congress, with a transparent succession policy and a bland centrist agenda, seems to be a safe bet for voters. Also, in this age of Raja of Niligiris, no Raja of Manda can credibly leave the government. So, barring bizarre developments, Manmohan Singh will complete his second term, the Congress will return to power in 2014 with a clear majority, and Rahul Gandhi will become India’s fifteenth prime minister.

But is the next general election indeed going to be a cakewalk for the Congress? Not if a reasonable number of opposition parties join hands. I have argued earlier  that in the next general election young, inexperienced leaders of provincial parties are likely to shy away from the uncertainty of coalition politics and play the son-of-the-soil card. However, the coordination problem can be surmounted if the opposition can choose its leader in advance. The prospective leader should have the right age and good governance credentials to challenge Rahul Gandhi. Otherwise, the leader of a coalition of provincial parties cannot afford to raise particularistic issues.

Let us have a look at the probable candidates. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (Left Front, West Bengal) is stuck in Singur and Nandigram. Narendra Modi (BJP, Gujarat) has mounted a tiger and is unable to dismount. Chandra Babu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party, Andhra Pradesh) is a spent force. B.S. Yediyurappa (BJP, Karnataka) is besieged in his own province. V. S. Achuthanandan (Left Front, Kerala), Parkash Singh Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal, Punjab), Prem Kumar Dhumal (BJP, Himachal Pradesh), M. Karunanidhi (DMK, Tamil Nadu), and Navin Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal, Orissa) will be more than 65 years old in 2014. Neiphiu Rio (Nagaland People’s Front, Nagaland) is constrained by his province’s cartographic rhetoric. Raman Singh (BJP, Chhattisgarh) is vulnerable due to his support for Salwa Judum. Ramesh Pokhriyal (BJP, Uttarakhand) and Omar Abdullah (National Conference, J&K) lack experience.

Pawan Kumar Chamling (Sikkim Democratic Front, Sikkim), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (BJP, Madhya Pradesh), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal United, Bihar), Kumari Mayawati (Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Uttar Pradesh), and Manik Sarkar (Left Front, Tripura) are the only leaders who have the baseline qualifications: developmentalist credentials, optimal age, and substantial public experience. However, a prospective leader of the opposition alliance should have additional qualifications, listed below.

Candidate Chamling










Nationwide appeal No No Yes Yes No
National level experience No Yes Yes No No
Access to a national political network No Yes No No Yes
Coalition experience No No Yes Yes Yes
Large (primary) support base No Yes Yes Yes No
Acceptable to BJP as well as the Left No No Yes No No

At present, Chamling lacks additional qualifications, which leaves us with four contenders, belonging to four different parties.

Manik Sarkar is a longstanding member of the CPI-M Politburo, which partly compensates for lack of national experience. He is known for careful handling of insurgency and credited with the socio-economic turnaround of Tripura, which has helped expand and diversify the Left Front’s support base. Like his illustrious predecessor Nripen Chakraborty, he is known for his honesty and simplicity. Unfortunately, intra-party divisions that earlier torpedoed Jyoti Basu’s candidature will also scuttle his candidature.

Shivraj Singh’s key assets are a clean, pro-development image and membership of the largest opposition party, which will serve as the nucleus of one of the two, if not the only, opposition alliance in 2014. Unlike other BJP leaders, he is not known for Hindutva antics. However, intra-party divisions will prove to be his Achilles’ heel.

Mayawati’s four terms as the chief minister of the most populous province partly compensate for lack of national experience. Those who write her off due to BSP’s poor performance in other provinces ignore the structural difference between provincial and national elections. Once she emerges as the prime ministerial candidate of an opposition coalition, she will receive support from the traditionally socially disadvantaged communities, and also minorities, from across the country. And, she does not have to campaign for this. Her supporters will eagerly participate in the making of history. Add to this her skill of weaving together a rainbow coalition of diverse communities and the advantage of being a female candidate after a long time. However, she is perceived by many to be corrupt. In recent times, she has shown sensitivity to this problem and her government is now dealing head-on with corruption. She can be a strong contender if, henceforth, she concentrates on development of her province, scales down symbolic activities at public expense, keeps criminal elements out of BSP, and puts together a credible team to speak on issues like national defence, foreign affairs, and economy. Time is on her side. Even after spending this year to get re-elected, she still has two years to prepare for the general election. But the BSP lacks a succession plan to ensure that Mayawati’s primary support base is in safe hands when she leaves the province.

Nitish Kumar satisfies all but one of the requirements. He is seen as a clean politician, who turned around one of the most backward provinces in one term. He appeals to the large middle class and youth across the country. Unlike others he is free to concentrate on the general election because he will face the next assembly election in 2015. His flexibility to move to the centre is, however, hampered by lack of succession plan.

Sarkar is unlikely to get past intra-party hurdles and the Left and BJP are likely to promote their own coalitions – the Third Front and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). So, we are left with three candidates to be matched to two alliances. NDA has the choice between Shivraj Singh and Nitish Kumar whereas the Third Front can choose between Mayawati and Nitish Kumar.

Interestingly, more than half of the candidates who meet our baseline and some of the additional requirements are affiliated to provincial parties and/or based in small provinces and all of them operate at the provincial level. So, irrespective of who emerges as the frontrunner, our discussion reveals a number of problems facing the Indian party system.  First, national parties lack candidates for national responsibilities. Second, the national echelon of most parties fails to attract and retain able leaders. Third, larger provinces seem to be unable to support good leaders. Fourth, most parties lack transparent succession policies. Last but not the least, none of the prospective candidates has international exposure essential for leading a country in a globalized world. It is time we start thinking.

Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore.


1. Ragu - January 24, 2011

A good, persuasive case for thinking about our prime ministerial candidate well ahead of the elections. Sadly, it seems to get decided at the last minute with very little meditation or grooming, unlike in other countries.

2. Yash - January 25, 2011

Nice analysis. And I agree with the comments too. If my memory does not fail me, if I recollect the political conditions of early last decade, I would guess nobody would have reckoned Manmohan Singh to be the next prime minister. In the last hour, the decision making degenerates beyond reasoning and consensus candidate search reduces to ostentatious distribution of public wealth among political parties. If possibility of non-congress government arises, besides 5 candidates mentioned in this article, I will not rule out the possibility of a completely unanticipated sixth candidate.