We have entered a year that promises to be one of intense political action. With national elections due around April-May, I have picked nine political personalities who, in my opinion, will influence the course of events in 2009. These nine will be the newsmakers of 2009 in the political arena.
Five years ago, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhizealously pursued the goal of stopping the National Democratic Alliance’s return to power by sewing up alliances, marking a departure from the Congress party’s stated preference for single-party rule. Under Gandhi’s stewardship, the Congress party has become a smart practitioner of the coalition politics it once loathed.
The Congress’ recent electoral successes in Delhi, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir have infused fresh dynamism in the party in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. Thanks to these electoral successes, the Congress-led UPA, which looked like a government on its way out in the wake of a surge in inflation (which has been easing) and incessant terror strikes last year, is back in the reckoning. Watch Gandhi’s moves in the new year as she lays out a plan to return the UPA to power at the Centre.
Also Read G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
The leader of the rival National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, has the seniority and political stature that can’t be matched by most claimants to the top job. In the 1990s, Advani scripted the ascension of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power at the Centre by leveraging his organization-building skills, forging smart alliances and pitching the right issues.
Recent electoral defeats in Delhi and Rajasthan have shocked the saffron camp and the party has gone into introspection. These defeats might prove to be a blessing in disguise for the BJP if the party were to put its house in order in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. As the BJP-led NDA has no presence or pre-poll partners in battleground states such as Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala—which account for 143 seats in the Lok Sabha—Advani’s alliance-building skills will be key in post-poll government formation. The seasoned campaigner is a man to watch out for in 2009 as he fights what probably will be the biggest political battle of his life.
Five years ago, fortuitous circumstances led Manmohan Singhto become India’s prime minister. By pursuing the Indo-US nuclear deal zealously and parting ways with Left parties that opposed it, Singh has shown that he is no pushover and will stay in office only on his own terms. What is significant is that even after five years in the most exalted position, Singh continues to enjoy the complete trust of Gandhi.
Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Prakash Karatregularly made the headlines in 2008 with his threats to the Manmohan Singh government. With the UPA charting its own course on the Indo-US nuclear deal and proving its parliamentary majority, Left parties appeared to have become irrelevant in national politics, as 2008 ended.
But, with the Left forging a third alternative with strong regional parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Karat will remain at political centrestage.
In the event that Left parties have a decisive role to play in government formation, it will be keenly watched whether Karat vigorously pursues the Left’s ideological opposition to the BJP or tries to get even with the UPA for the humiliation he and his comrades suffered on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Although the strength of the Left Front in the next Lok Sabha may decline, the influence of Communist parties and that of Karat is unlikely to wane.
Given her mercurial ways and lack of acceptability among a number of parties, some of whom also feel threatened by her exceptional rise, BSP leader and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawatiis unlikely to be in the reckoning for the office of the prime minister.
In 2008, with her impressive electoral pursuits, the practitioner of Dalit identity politics impressed her Dalit admirers all over the country and shocked the educated urban electorate. She has made no secret of her ambition to be prime minister.
Scores of people asked me over the past few months if Mayawati had a realistic chance of becoming prime minister after this year’s Lok Sabha polls. They were hugely relieved to hear my assessment that her chances were extremely slim. Still, because people are so obsessed with Mayawati—her admirers and critics alike, though for conflicting reasons—she is a leader to be watched this year.
So far, Pratibha Patil has been a quiet president and lucky not to have faced any constitutional challenges requiring presidential intervention. But, in the post-Lok Sabha poll scenario, her role in installing a new government could become critical. Whether she follows the well-established traditions in the formation of the next government or pursues a line to benefit the key actors who facilitated her elevation to the office of president would be keenly watched. In 2009, you are likely to see and hear the president more often than last year.
In my opinion, there are three other regional leaders who will be in the news in the new year. They are J. Jayalalithaaof the AIADMK, Sharad Pawarof the Nationalist Congress Party and Chandrababu Naiduof the TDP.
They are not likely to be important because of the numbers that they will have in the next Lok Sabha, but their acceptability to the entire political spectrum.
All of them are likely to be in the news for playing a key role in the formation of the next government and its functioning.
This is my pick of nine politicians who will matter the most this year. Watch out for unfolding events in the year ahead to gauge how accurate or awfully inaccurate the assessment is.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org