Margins cannot determine the fate of the text. At the moment, the story of the next elections to Rashtrapati Bhavan is in neither array nor disarray: it is blank, because the principal political parties, Congress and BJP, have not written anything down. The Congress refuses to name a candidate; the BJP is under no compulsion to hurry. It might seem, from environmental chatter, that a whirlwind candidate like P.A. Sangma is making some progress, but he is merely blotting the page with blobs of ink. In this phase the best candidates write in invisible ink, which is faintly visible under close scrutiny but should disappear from view under the glare of too much attention.
The fluid nature of numbers on either side of the political divide has made this election a game not of action, but of reaction. We can take the sporting analogy further. The Congress game, strategised by Sonia Gandhi, is to play for a draw till regulation time, and then blitz-win in the penalty shootout. If she does not act till the very last minute, she denies her opponents the chance to mobilise a reaction. In a penalty shootout, the option before Congress allies is clear: either each of them scores a goal and ensures victory, or UPA collapses and they force a midterm poll. Leaders like Sharad Pawar may try and flex muscle during regulation play, but Mrs Gandhi knows that he is more bluster than threat. He has no interest in inviting an election which his party will lose in Maharashtra. He might not win in 2014 either, but at least there are two years left in office, with its attendant rewards.
DMK will have to take a similar call, but there is a faint chance — perhaps a very faint one — that its response might be more ambivalent. All parties know that the key determinant in the electorate’s mood next time will be the level of anger against the Congress. This is why Mamata Banerjee and Karunanidhi distance themselves from Congress whenever it takes an unpopular decision like the fuel price hike. They organise a “protest” in an anxious bid to deflect popular wrath towards the Congress. It is pretty obvious that this is an utterly fake protest, since they will live with the decision and continue to support Congress. Voters understand this duplicity, up to a point; and that point is nearing. There will come a moment when DMK might feel that it is no longer in its electoral interest to associate with a party that is visibly losing the plot in what was once its core strength, governance. That moment may not come in July 2012, but it is hovering on the horizon.
The possibility is that Sonia Gandhi will nominate someone like Meira Kumar at the very last minute, and then let the dust settle in her favour.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi could end all speculation in the space of a few seconds, by announcing Pranab Mukherjee as her candidate. He cannot be more transparent about his desire for promotion. He would, moreover, win on a trot, as neither the BJP nor the Left will contest his claim. His stature is substantially higher than anyone else on the Congress list. Pranab Mukherjee is in the curious position of being everyone’s favourite choice except Sonia Gandhi’s. We do not know why she trusts him with the governance of India but not with a decorative residence in a British-built palace. The official reason, that Mukherjee is too valuable where he is, was used five years ago and has worn thin. Pranab Mukherjee is being condemned to bachelorhood just because he is such a good best man at every wedding.
It is truly odd that Congress should risk an election which just might go wrong during overtime, rather than make Pranab Mukherjee President of India with convincing ease long before the final whistle is blown. Of course, things might change quickly: Mrs Gandhi could play it safe after token consultations. But the greater possibility is that she will nominate someone like the current Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar at the very last minute, and then let the dust settle in her favour. She may have already got the support of her most temperamental ally, Mamata Banerjee, since Mamata Banerjee considers Pranab Mukherjee a “world citizen” rather than a Bengali.
But the text of an uncertain election will be written in Lucknow, not Kolkata. Mulayam Singh Yadav will not be a marginal factor; he will have a page of his own. Meira Kumar gives him little traction, since he does not get the Dalit vote; he could lead a non UPA consolidation around a Muslim candidate like Abdul Kalam, or Hamid Ansari, if either agreed to contest. Moreover, Mayawati will not want Meira Kumar for exactly the same reason that Mamata is resisting Mukherjee: competition for pre-eminence.
Never discount the possibility that while everyone is playing football, someone opens a chessboard. An astute chess player waits for the queens, knights, bishops and castles to fall, and then suddenly promotes an unsuspected pawn to queen. Check, mate.