After the hug and the wink, a step back. The Congress's realisation, albeit belatedly, that Rahul Gandhi still does not have the gravitas required to become the prime minister will be generally welcomed. Evidently, the party is becoming more mature along with its president.The retreat by Rahul Gandhi in favour of regional leaders will enable the opposition at the national level to focus more effectively on the issue, which is just as well because of the number of aspirants. As the Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav has said, there are at least four in the fray (apart from Rahul) -- Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu and Sharad Pawar. Mercifully, no one takes Arvind Kejriwal's name any more, not even the Delhi chief minister himself.Of the four, the West Bengal chief minister and the former U.P. chief minister can be regarded as front-runners. Both have made their intentions clear and are trying, for each of their parties, to win as many Lok Sabha seats as possible to buttress their claims.The Trinamool Congress leader's aim is to win all the 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal. Since her party has 34 at present, her expectations cannot be said to be too high. However, winning all the Lok Sabha constituencies will not be easy at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seemingly gaining ground because of the prevailing lawlessness in the state which was seen during the recent panchayat polls.As for Mayawati, her desire to have a nationwide alliance with the Congress and not in Madhya Pradesh alone, as the latter wants, is obviously intended to widen the prospect of her outfit, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), winning a fair number of seats. At present, the BSP has none in the Lok Sabha, but that is an oddity - a one-time failure which does not portend the future.However, what the chasing of seats emphasises is the importance of the numbers game, which, of course, is the central feature of a parliamentary democracy.In this respect, the Telugu Desam with 16 seats and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with seven may be theoretically ahead of the BSP. But they have several disadvantages.For a start, as a south Indian party, the Telugu Desam may find the going tough in a political milieu where north Indian parties tend to be well ahead of those from elsewhere in terms of the popular perception about their successful strike rate. The reasons are, first, their fluency in Hindi which is understood nearly all over India, and, secondly, because, historically, north Indian politicians have dominated the corridors of power in New Delhi.There has been only one prime minister from the south -- H.D. Deve Gowda of Karnataka -- but for only 10 months. The Telugu Desam leader, Chandrababu Naidu, will be hoping against hope, therefore, if he thinks that it will be an easy ride to Delhi's 7, Lok Kalyan Marg (formerly Race Course Road), which is the prime minister's official residence.The NCP's Sharad Pawar is another claimant although he has never said so himself; nor has Naidu. But though now an elder statesman, the 78-year-old Pawar, who became chief minister of Maharashtra at the age of 38, and has held a number of major portfolios at the centre, is now past his prime.That leaves the two women -- Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. Before considering their cases, it has to be remembered that the last word may not have been said about Rahul. If the Congress sweeps the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh assembly elections and does fairly well in Chhattisgarh, it would have overcome much of the ignominy of its present lowly status in the Lok Sabha with 48 seats and think of taking on the BJP almost on equal terms in 2019. Such a turn of events will make Rahul a serious contender once again.The problem with Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati is that they do not have an across-the-board, pan-Indian appeal. Both are largely based in their own states -- West Bengal and U.P. -- with Mamata suffering from the added disadvantage of being less than fluent in Hindi.Mayawati may attract the Dalit and Muslim votes, but how enthusiastic the backward castes and the upper castes will be at the national level is open to question. In U.P., the Samajwadi Party leader, Akhilesh Yadav, may ensure that his ally, Mayawati, gets the backward caste votes, but she may face difficulties elsewhere because the Dalits and the backward castes have not always had the best of relations. The upper castes, of course, are even more opposed to the Dalits.It is understandable, therefore, why the non-BJP parties have kept their options open about the prime ministerial candidate till after the elections. Their hope is that the numbers will be the decisive factor and make the choice for them. But there is also the need for those not in the running like Sonia Gandhi to play a mediatory role of the kind Jayaprakash Narayan and J.B. Kripalani played in 1977 to calm tempers and massage the egos.
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