No doubt he spoke with the best of intentions, but MK Stalin made a silly mistake proposing Rahul Gandhi as the opposition candidate for prime minister. He may well want the job but, in recent weeks, Gandhi has deliberately distanced himself from this ambition. Stalin’s statement raises questions about this. Worse, to have spoken in front of other opposition leaders could provoke divisions in their ranks.
Who the opposition candidate for prime minister will be is a tricky question best left unanswered until after the elections. There are many who want the job and believe they are better qualified than Gandhi. This includes Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and, perhaps, Chandrababu Naidu. MK Stalin is not in the running. So for him to champion Gandhi’s cause is easy. But the instant adverse reaction it attracted from the other opposition parties was both predictable and inevitable. Now, will others seek to throw their hats into the ring? If that happens, a veritable hornet’s nest will have been stirred.
The truth is on several occasions Gandhi has disavowed any claim to the prime ministership. At this paper’s Leadership Summit in October, he made it clear that this is an issue for later: “We have had discussions with allies and what we decided is that this is a two-stage process — one, is to get together and defeat BJP, and stage two is, once the election is over, we will decide what happens.”
A month later, in the company of Chandrababu Naidu, he repeated this disclaimer. The opposition was going to work to defeat the BJP, defend democracy and India’s institutions, he said. “All other ideas we will discuss later. Everyone is going to work together.”
In fact, MK Stalin should have followed Chandrababu Naidu’s lead. Naidu said to journalists asking who would be the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate,“You are interested in candidate, we are interested in the nation.”
I would add Gandhi can only hope to be the opposition’s prime ministerial choice if Congress wins at least half of the Lok Sabha seats necessary for a majority. This means a minimum of 136. That’s also more than three times what it won in 2014.
A piquant situation will arise if the Congress is the single largest party in the opposition alliance but short of the 136 mark. If Mayawati and Mamata have 40 MPs each, they could be reluctant to give precedence to Rahul Gandhi. Even if their numbers are smaller they’re likely to believe their greater experience gives them prior claim.
For now the wisest course is to leave the question who will be prime minister hanging in the air, deliberately unanswered and always carefully sidestepped. This is an issue to evade not confront. Wisdom lies in deftly circumventing it, not in attempting a response.
No doubt this could tempt the BJP into a ‘Modi versus who?’ campaign, seeking to expose the hollow at the heart of the opposition alliance, but that’s better than a ‘Modi versus Rahul’ campaign, which would be loaded in the prime minister’s favour.
Finally, not naming a prime ministerial candidate makes sense because the opposition can only win by interpreting the 2019 election as 28 separate state elections rather than one massive national fight. This means individual chief ministers or leaders will have to play the primary role in their respective states rather than a central figure in Delhi. If nothing else, MK Stalin should have understood this last point.