Has Janata Dal (Secular) chief HD Deve Gowda joined the long list of prime ministerial aspirants from the Opposition, as the Congress and regional parties prepare for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

This may sound far-fetched today but it is worth looking at history. In 1996, when 13 regional parties and the Left Front joined hands to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power at the Centre, Gowda emerged as a compromise candidate for the prime minister’s post. The Congress propped up this government with outside support.

The general election that year had thrown up a fractured mandate. The BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha with 161 seats, while the Congress was in second position with 140 seats. Veteran BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited to form the government but he failed to muster the requisite numbers as the saffron party was unable to find allies to help it get past the half-way mark of 272. Vajpayee’s government lasted 13 days.

The national Capital subsequently witnessed hectic political activity. The Left parties as well as 13 regional parties got together to from the United Front and decided to have a go at forming the government, with the Congress promising outside support. But it had to first cross a major hurdle – finding an acceptable candidate for the prime minister’s post. Former Prime Minister VP Singh declined an offer. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav then proposed West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu’s name for the post, but the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s central committee vetoed the proposal. Leaders of the United Front then went into a huddle, and after hours of deliberation eventually zeroed in on Deve Gowda.

2019 verdict

So, will history repeat itself? What happens if the 2019 general election throws up a verdict similar to the Karnataka result wherein the BJP emerges as the single largest party but is unable to form the government?

The numbers will only favour the other side if the regional parties and the Congress set aside their differences and put up a combined fight against the BJP next year.

The Congress’s decision to offer the chief minister’s position to the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka despite the fact that it has more MLAs in the state Assembly has fired the ambitions of other regional leaders. These leaders may not be averse to doing business with the Congress provided it does not insist on playing the lead role in the proposed anti-BJP coalition. To that extent, last week’s fast-paced developments in Karnataka have set the stage for a grand Opposition alliance at the national level in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

Consensus candidate

The next logical question is: Who will be the face of this alliance?

There are a host of contenders.

Till last year, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, was emerging as an obvious choice, but the 67-year-old ruled himself out when he broke off with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress and rejoined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, 63, is also positioning herself for a bigger national role while her Telangana counterpart, 64-year-old K Chandrashekar Rao, who is pushing for a federal front of regional parties, also sees himself as a potential prime minister.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, 68, who is currently locked in a bitter battle with the BJP, may also be tempted to throw his hat in the ring. Similarly, as a two-time chief minister, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, 62, also believes she has the necessary credentials to play a role at the Centre. Nationalist Congress chief Sharad Pawar, 77, who is reputed to be an efficient administrator and a wily politician, is in contention for the top post too. His party may not be numerically strong but the Maratha strongman has friends across the political spectrum. And now 85-year-old Deve Gowda’s name has been added to this list, even though age is not on his side. The Congress, of course, still insists that as a pan-Indian party that is bound to have more numbers than the regional parties, it will be best placed to lead a coalition. And if it comes to that, Congress members insist, their leader will be 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi.

“But we just don’t know how things will pan out in the next Lok Sabha election,” remarked a Congress leader. “Nobody can deny that Gowda is the senior most leader from among the other regional players. He has also served as prime minister before.” Having tasted blood in Karnataka, Gowda may not be averse to moving to the Centre.

There is no doubt that Congress president Rahul Gandhi has got a new lease of life after the party outwitted the BJP in Karnataka, denying it a shot at power. He will now go into the forthcoming Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – all BJP-ruled states – with renewed vigour and greater confidence. But he has a long way to go before he is accepted by regional parties as the leader of the anti-BJP opposition coalition. Banerjee and the Telangana chief minister are pursuing the formation of a federal front without the Congress, but Pawar is of the view that it will not be possible to keep the Congress out as it has a larger base than the regional parties.

It has been suggested that the Opposition parties should avoid any unseemly fights on the leadership issue before the next general elections and instead concentrate on taking on the BJP in their respective strongholds. Within the Congress, there is a view that the party cadres should not publicly insist that Rahul Gandhi will necessarily lead the Opposition alliance. The task of bringing together Opposition parties, it is felt, should be left to Sonia Gandhi in her capacity as chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance. Not only does she command the respect of the other regional leaders, she also has the experience of building such a coalition. Moreover, she is not in the race for the prime minister’s post. The leadership issue is best settled after the elections, once the numbers are in.