Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Game is On

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh personally visited the Regional Transport Organisation (RTO) last weekend to renew his driving licence. It is time also for him to renew his "licence" to govern India for the next five years.

He also needs to get well after heart bypass surgery.With barely three months to go before the 15th general election, speculation has begun in earnest on who would be "king".Interestingly, a dry run has been initiated by India Inc, which is worried about who will provide political stability at a time when the economy is bracing to face the global slowdown.Industrialists Anil Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal heap praise on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, saying he has the qualities to be prime minister.

They came out in the open on what has been talked about for some time. There is no denying Modi's role in providing industrial peace in his state and attracting investment, both domestic and foreign. In the Investors' Fair this year, he had received commitments worth Rs320 trillion. This is music to the ears of the businessmen.

His persona, too, has undergone a change. He flaunts designer jackets and spectacles. Of course, he remains rooted to his soil and the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu umbrella body, and wears no tie to complete the corporate couture.

All this is despite his presiding over a thousand deaths in 2002. If it is winning votes, he has erased that taint twice over, enough to ignore those who still hold him guilty. But then, the life of a people is not all votes and victories.

Despite the declarations by Ambani and Mittal, Modi is not India Inc's chosen one for the top job. He comes fourth in the list of preferences, going by a poll of senior business executives conducted by Hindustan Times-Cfore. Modi loses out even to Rahul Gandhi, Congress general secretary and party chief Sonia Gandhi's son.

It seems India Inc so far reposes faith in Manmohan Singh, 76, who pioneered economic reforms and shepherded them in the mid-1990s through market scams and the political instability of a minority government. Pitch-forked to the prime minister's post in 2004, he has won some points but lost many. Just a year ago, the economy under him was rated one of the world's fastest-growing, till it was hit by the current global economic slowdown. He is derided as an outsider and even usurper, with no political base to speak of. His political career began only in 1991, He is dubbed "useless" and "most unsuccessful prime minister" by the main opposition.There are no sweeps and surges when it comes to his political acceptability. He got 25 per cent, decidedly a minority vote, just two notches above opposition leader and the opposition alliance's prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani.

Modi, 58, got 12 per cent, while Rahul, who is 20 years his junior at 38, was the choice of 14 per cent of the business executives surveyed.

The poll covered 226 senior executives across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, and concludes that a majority of business leaders prefer to trade enthusiasm for experience, especially in times of crisis.

There is an additional aspect which must worry Advani. Modi is 23 years younger, which brings the spotlight back on the age of the BJP's octogenarian prime ministerial candidate.Aware of this disadvantage -- India has 100 million first-time voters -- there has been an attempt to brush up Advani's image, but it is difficult to believe that the makeover will be very convincing. Modi put all speculation to rest, saying that he wasn't in the running. But there is no last word. Advani faces tough competition from India's former vice-president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who says that at 86, he is the "senior-most" in the party while Advani is a "junior". It is obvious that Shekhawat will not be content to be an ordinary MP if he wins, which is a near-certainty given his well-established base in Rajasthan state and his contacts across the country. If he becomes an MP, it is unlikely that he will not take a shot at the prime minister's post.

In the Congress, too, there is confusion, what with party seniors falling over each other to hail Rahul as the "star" who shall be king. But they are guarded in their haste, since mother Sonia proclaimed Manmohan as the prime ministerial nominee, indicating, perhaps, that Rahul must wait.Officially, none in the Congress or the BJP want to precipitate any speculation about Gandhi or Modi. But you cannot stop the political tongues from wagging about the vote-drawing qualities of candidates and their ability to lead their parties and alliances to victory in what by all accounts should be a pretty close contest.

Clearly, Advani has competition brewing within his party. And Manmohan is being pressured in the name of Rahul by detractors. The latest entrant in the race, officially and firmly, is ambitious Sharad Pawar. The man in his mid-60s had forced a vote recount way back in 1991 and lost. But he remains one of the wiliest politicians around, with intra-party goodwill and the acceptance of the corporate sector.

All this is good democratic discourse. But it remains idle talk, since none can claim to know the mind of 1 billion people. Their diverse yet collective wisdom will determine the rise or fall of individuals and political parties. The alliance that rustles up the magic number of 273 seats will be the winner.

As the expression goes: Lets wait and see.

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