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Will Meira Kumar be Congress' surprise choice?

Saturday October 22, 2011 05:49:46 PM, Amulya Ganguli, IANS

Does the Congress have an ace up its sleeve? If Mayawati's surmise is to be believed, the Grand Old Party is planning to announce the nomination of a Dalit prime minister just before next year's assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

According to her, it can be either Meira Kumar or Sushil Kumar Shinde. However, prima facie, the former appears to be a better choice. But, whatever the relative merits, it is patent enough that any such announcement will unnerve Mayawati more than anything else.

At one stroke, her principal adversary would have severely eroded her only dependable base of support. If large sections of Dalits turn away, there is nothing that can prop her up, not least because there is little that she can show on the development front, other than gradiose, extravagant projects.

How nervous she is about this supposedly captive vote bank of hers was evident when she castigated Rahul Gandhi for spending time in Dalit homes, alleging that he washed himself with a "special soap" on returning to Delhi. That she could turn to whipping up the age-old casteist sentiments despite her claims to be leading a rainbow coalition showed that she banked on none other than the Dalits.

The announcement of a Dalit prime ministerial candidate will therefore put her at a serious disadvantage if only because she can no longer rouse the kind of ingrained animus among her core group of supporters that she can against upper caste opponents.

But it isn't Mayawati alone who will be foxed. None of the other parties will know how to react, for it is not easy to take up political cudgels against someone who can be India's first Dalit prime minister. The difficulty will be all the greater because Meira Kumar will be fulfilling her father's ambition if she succeeds.

The highest position which her father Jagjivan Ram achieved in his lifetime was to be the No.2 deputy prime minister after Charan Singh in Morarji Desai's Janata Party government of 1977-79. Otherwise, he never rose above the rank of a senior cabinet minister when in the Congress despite his reputation as an able administrator.

Meira Kumar, of course, does not have her father's stature. In fact, it is only as the Lok Sabha speaker that she seems to have come into her own, creating a favourable impression about her dignity and an aptitude for maintaining order in a generally unruly house. Her stint in the Indian Foreign Service seems to have enhanced her sense of decorum and restraint.

But these are not the qualities which are motivating the Congress. Its interest lies in her ability to be the party's trump card. At a time when the party is at its wit's end in view of the widespread disenchantment of the electorate, civil society's challenge, the assertiveness of the judiciary and autonomous institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) office, rising inflation, falling investment - the list is endless - the Congress needs someone who can make at least some sections of the electorate return to the party.

Apart from the Dalits, Muslims too will be willing to repose their trust again in the party because of the boost that the Dalit support will give the Congress. The backward castes may be ambivalent because of their generally fraught relations with the Dalits in the countryside, but the liberals will be pleased at the opportunity for a Dalit leader.

The expressions of support which Mayawati initially received even as a possible prime minister from the chattering classes till they were turned off by her statue building spree are likely to be voiced again for Meira Kumar. The disquiet which these sections felt with the idea of a dynastic succession will be dissipated although she too belongs to a political family.

For the Congress, the other alternatives haven't quite measured up. That Manmohan Singh's stocks are falling is obvious from the results of the recent byelections. Even if he is willing for a third term, there is no way the gentle Sardar can be considered a winning proposition. At least not at present, unless he makes a dramatic U-turn in his attitude and policies by pursuing economic reforms - his original USP - with single-minded determination.

But that does not seem a possibility. As for the other claimant, Rahul Gandhi, who was expected to slip unhindered into the prime minister's seat kept warm for him till 2014 by Manmohan Singh, the long waiting period has not been too kind. There is continuing uncertainty about what he stands for. Is he for or against economic reforms? What are his views on subsidies, reservations, bans on controversial books, proximity to America?

Perhaps his mother as well as the party have understood that he hasn't matured enough yet to be prime minister. Besides, it will not be fair to entrust him with the responsibility when the party is in the doldrums. Hence the consideration of options such as the Dalit card.


Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at










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