For the past 24 hours, the political grapevine in Lutyens' Delhi has been buzzing with the news that the Congress is readying with an alternative to Manmohan Singh. The assumption is that if the Congress doesn't perform too well, it must be ready with a name who can command more support than a Third Front candidate. More particularly the Congress wants someone who can out-Pawar Sharad Pawar.
The name doing the rounds is the ever-faithful Sushil Kumar Shinde from Sholapur. Shinde fulfills all the criteria:
- He is unquestioningly loyal to the owners of the Congress Party
- Coming from Maharashtra, he can undercut Pawar's Marathi manush claims. Maybe the Shiv Sena will support him (or not oppose him).
- He is a Dalit and the Third Front parties will not risk opposing a Dalit. The Congress can hog the credit for being the party that installed the first Dalit PM.
The detractors say that Shinde is a non-starter. They point to an emerging controversy arising out of Pune (this part is deliberately cryptic as I have no means of checking the credibility of scurrilous whispers).
Politically, the floating of Shinde's name suggests that there is a powerful section of the Congress that will not abdicate the post of Prime Minister at any cost.
Let us see if other names emerge in the next four days.
Postscript: MMS isn't going to yield ground so easily. He and his supporters believe that the Congress has secured a lot of incremental middle class votes in the metros (particularly Delhi) because of his "benign" presence. There is also a feeling that he has added to the pro-Congress mood in Punjab. But the Left is implacably hostile to him. This may explain his "forgive and forget" overture to the Left on the final day of campaigning.