The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Do-or-die election for kings-in-waiting

New Delhi, March 4: The battle may be unequal but for Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, the stakes are equally high in Election 2004.

If, for instance, the NDA, led by Vajpayee, is pipped to the post and he is out of 7 Race Course Road, the BJP headquarters would be the new power centre. In the BJP, it is common knowledge that the Prime Minister is uninterested in organisational nitty-gritties. So he would perhaps fade into the sunset.

What happens to the Congress if it is reduced to a two-figure tally and records its worst-ever performance under Sonia' Would she recede from political consciousness without the satisfaction of serving a prime ministerial tenure, unlike Vajpayee'

While political pundits have started sketching post-poll scenarios though the battle has barely begun, Vajpayee and Sonia apart, there is a clutch of leaders, mostly regional satraps, for whom the elections are as much of a do-or-die battle.

Some fancy themselves as potentates of sorts with an eye on the Delhi throne while the less ambitious want to be king- or queen-makers depending on whether they support the BJP or the Congress. But all of them have to make a mark before they are taken seriously in either role.

Mulayam Singh Yadav

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister is still dodgy about contesting the Lok Sabha polls, but political wisdom, based on caste calculations, places him at number one in Uttar Pradesh. Together with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and his own Yadav-Muslim-Gujjar-Thakur social coalition, Mulayam Singh is set to better his 1999 tally of 28 seats. If he wins 35 or 40 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, even BJP sources dourly admit that their chances of heading the next government get dimmed.

From all accounts, Mulayam Singh is nursing his aspirations all right. His lieutenant Amar Singh is busy bringing corporates on the Samajwadi Party’s side, hardselling Uttar Pradesh and reinventing its image from being “ultaa pradesh (topsy-turvy state)” to “uttam pradesh (numero uno state)”.

Not only is Uttar Pradesh politically crucial, it is Vajpayee’s battleground. The BJP’s tentative reading is that its productive allies of 1999, like the Telugu Desam Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Biju Janata Dal, will lose seats. It hopes to get the Samajwadi on its side post-poll, but if Mulayam Singh’s kitty swells, sources asked why on earth would he want to back Vajpayee for the top job and “gracefully” retreat to Lucknow' Old socialist comrade Chandra Shekhar has “blessed” him in return for the Samajwadi’s support in his Ballia constituency.

If, on the other hand, he falls short of the projection, Mulayam Singh will have to be content as a regional chieftain and give up his national ambitions.

Sharad Pawar

Perhaps his last shot at re-emerging as a national player. The Maharashtra leader is riding piggyback on the Congress to garner a respectable Lok Sabha tally — not so much to catapult Sonia to the top job as placing himself as a claimant.

Chandra Shekhar, who has retired from being the king-in-waiting to kingmaker, is supposed to have a soft spot for Pawar.

M. Karunanidhi

Over 80, the DMK strongman has survived several vicissitudes, including Jayalalithaa getting him arrested on corruption charges, to retain his relevance in Tamil Nadu politics.

The DMK may have lost its ideological brand after hobnobbing with the BJP but Karunanidhi proved his credentials as a reliable ally. If the DMK-led alliance wraps up Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi would have done nothing more than reinforcing his political significance in the state because he is not waiting to become the Prime Minister. If it does not, he will have to pass the baton to his sons Stalin and Azhagiri.

George Fernandes

From being Vajpayee’s most dependable trouble-shooter to fighting to maintain the Janata Dal(U)’s identity and strength in its only geographical base, Bihar, this election means everything to Fernandes.

If the Dal(U) retains its 18 seats, he will matter in the NDA. If it doesn’t and Vajpayee still forms the government, the Prime Minister will have to look for a new NDA convener.

Kalyan Singh

Got a new lease of political life once Vajpayee agreed to re-induct him into the BJP.

Kalyan will have to prove his worth by ensuring that the BJP not only retains its 26 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh but adds to it.

That, the sources said, was a tall order because Kalyan has to ward off his in-house adversaries, re-energise the cadre and get the caste arithmetic right and working.

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