A big question hovering over Indian politics is this: if there is to be a government not led by the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre after the next general election, who will head it' Who are the non-BJP contenders for the prime minister’s office' This question cannot entirely be answered in advance. Much will depend on the exact distribution of seats. Does the Congress get somewhere in the range of 175 or does it cross the 200 seat mark' How many seats does the Samajwadi Party manage to muster in Uttar Pradesh' How does the Nationalist Congress Party do in Maharashtra' How does the Congress fare in Karnataka' These imponderables will have a significant effect on the negotiations and horse-trading which will go into the making of a non-BJP alliance and the subsequent formation of a government. Barring any unexpected events, the next election will probably be more about the nuances of local mathematics than any clear mandates.
For the time being, Mulayam Singh Yadav seems to be making his peace with Sonia Gandhi. The Samajwadi Party is desperate for allies. Although it is a substantial force in UP, much of its ability to sustain itself as a party will depend on getting access to power sometime soon, either at the Centre or the state. Desperation is throwing the party into the arms of the Congress, but make no mistake, this is still a very reluctant embrace. The realization is also dawning upon the Congress that it cannot entirely go it alone. Even on a very optimistic projection, where the Congress retains its current strongholds — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka — as it is likely to do, and makes substantial gains in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, its near-absence from UP and Bihar makes it very likely that it will need allies.
Since it is in a direct contest with regional parties in the south, these allies will have to come from UP and Bihar. Another alternative might be to rope in a party like Sharad Pawar’s NCP, which still has the potential of acting spoiler for the Congress. The question is: can Sonia Gandhi head and manage an alliance'
There are two ways of playing the Sonia question within the Congress. On the one hand, it could be argued that her leadership has cost Congress dear. She is, to some extent a political liability. She does not have any manifest political charisma or leadership skills; she has managed to drive out significant would-be Congressites like the NCP and the Tamil Manila Congress; she is still surrounded by the politically and intellectually mediocre end of the Congress, and is largely counting on the Congress’s historical presence and on some of her chief ministers to pull the Congress through.
On the other hand, many in the Congress think that the party will be finished without the dynasty. The reason is not simple subservience. A good deal of it has to do with two features of the Congress. First, regional leaders always cancel one another out. It is notorious that historically, within the Congress, one regional strongman will go to any lengths to prevent another significant regional player from taking the top position. In their stalemate, they are more likely to support someone who appears “neutral” and open to manipulation.
This was the logic that led to the installation of Indira Gandhi, but she soon outwitted the conglomeration of regional bosses who put her there, cutting them down to size. The same logic prevailed in the choice of Narasimha Rao, who although an astute politician was an electoral non-entity compared to Sharad Pawar or Rajesh Pilot. Second, the Congress has no institutionalized way of electing leaders, no rules of election upon which most of its members agree. Such a system allows dynastic patronage politics to flourish. The dynasty becomes the easy answer to a stalemate between other leaders.
Much the same logic would apply to a broader alliance. Remember why Morarji Desai or a Chandrashekhar and later, I.K. Gujral were acceptable prime ministers' They did not belong to any region, in the political sense of the term, and had no faction of their own. Their political insignificance was their asset. First of all, if Sharad Pawar and those disgruntled with Sonia become significant players in the horse-trading, it is likely that Sonia Gandhi will be unacceptable. On the other hand Mulayam and Laloo Prasad Yadav will extract a significant price for their support. The question is: will this price be limited to complete domination over their respective states, or will they, as in the past, extract a significant price at the Centre as well' If the latter scenario prevails, the chances of discontent within the Congress are not inconsiderable. Can Sonia Gandhi carry out this balancing act'
At the present conjuncture, alliances are moving in a direction which suggests that she can. This is simply because, both the Congress and its potential allies are desperate. In many ways, this is a critical election for both the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. If they do not make it to power this time their very survival is at stake. On the other hand, desperation is not necessarily enduring cement. Suppose, for a moment, that there is a Congress-led alliance at the Centre with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in tow.
Are Mulayam and Laloo potentially more unstable allies for the Congress than the Telegu Desam Party, Samata and BSP are for the BJP' Will they make the rest of the Congress more anxious than the BJP’s allies make it nervous' On the evidence of past behaviour, the answer is probably yes. For one thing, the Samajwadi Party will demand more promiscuous central intervention in the politics of UP than TDP asks the BJP to intervene in Andhra Pradesh. This creates more potential lines of conflict.
Second, in the south, regional leaders are secure in their bases independently of the Centre. In the north, the temptation is to acquire greater Central power to shore up your position in the states. Mulayam was greatly helped, first, by V.P. Singh’s Mandalization of politics, then by his stint at the Centre. This again suggests that the chances of a northern alliance partner overreaching are greater than if your ally is from the south. The pressures on a Congress-led alliance will be immense. It will call forth the skills of the leader who is more adept at complicated circumnavigation than Sonia Gandhi; her distinct contribution to politics is an ability to hide behind a small coterie.
In short, notwithstanding the growing warmth between Mulayam and Sonia, it is still too early to see how the leadership conundrum of a non-BJP-led government will be resolved. If history is any guide, non-BJP alliance politics usually favours non-descript and weak leaders. Sonia Gandhi’s advantage is that she is weak; her disadvantage is that she is not non-descript and gives many political parties reasons to veto her.
Although it is foolish to make predictions, here are two on offer, for all they are worth. Barring any unexpected incidents like Godhra, terrorism or communal violence, we will throw up a hung parliament with non-BJP parties in a position to form the government. There will be leadership squabbles, but the allure of power will compel the Congress to form alliances with a bunch of parties. But, if the Congress’s tally is near or under 200, do not be surprised if the leader of such an alliance turns out to be a dark horse, or more appropriately, a horse we had long assumed dead, like Chandrashekhar or someone similar, a result of different strongmen cancelling one another out. Barring an unexpected Congress wave, the odds are still slightly against Sonia Gandhi. In either case, the leader will have an impossible task managing an alliance — and heaven forbid that we require a mid-term election.