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The Nandan Nilekani wild card

When Shekhar Gupta writes two Op-eds on the drift in the UPA it’s a signal of sorts. Before we get too carried away let us be clear this is not a “Dileep Padgaonkar” moment (for those who were not old enough, Dileep Padgaonkar who was once TOI’s chief editor, famously claimed it was the second most important job in the country).

The reason this is a signal is because of the extent to which the Shekha Gupta editorial bureau in the Indian Express had been invested in the Manmohan Singh PMO until recently. So when Shekhar Gupta starts to describe the UPA 2.0 as lameduck it is a sign of diminishing future returns from that investment.

Now conventional wisdom would have us believe that this maybe about an imminent succession to the heir apparent. But then Shekhar Gupta is not exactly betting on a heir apparent lead PMO. In fact Shekhar Gupta is not hedging his bets on any of the known suspects taking over the PMO while being quite forthright in describing the incumbent as lame duck.

This begs the question – what does he know that the rest of us don’t ?

Perhaps it’s that the heir apparent doesn’t exactly want to hold public office ?

The drift in the Congress is better explained if we were to go with the working hypothesis that Rahul Gandhi does not want to become Prime Minister. The public jostling between Digvijay Singh and P. Chidambaram and the running down of Kapil Sibal by lightweight Members of Parliament is indicative of the high stakes game that’s underway, positioning for a post Manmohan Singh scenario.

But then who says Sonia Gandhi is about to replace a non-politician with a career politician ?

Sonia Gandhi’s ascent to the longest Presidency has been marked by an emasculation of career politicians. Narasimha Rao has all but been erased from public memory. Sitaram Kesri had no idea what hit him before e faded into the oblivion. Arjun Singh paid a steep price to retain some semblance of self-respect. While destiny took care of potential challengers the rebels like Pawar have long been cut to size.

The only career politicians in the Congress with a future are those who have completely submitted themselves to the basic Nehru Gandhi Contract. We are already witnessing in Andhra what happens when the Nehru-Gandhi contracts is subordinated by a regional satrap.

So as much as Chidambaram, Digvijay Singh and Kapil Sibal maybe positioning themselves for a post Manmohan scenario it is highly unlikely the Nehru-Gandhi contract will be subordinated in favor of a career politician.

What about the Minority/Dalit card ?

This trial balloon has been floated before. The Congress is acutely aware that it needs to play both the vote banks subtly to be in power. It will dole out symbolic posts but won’t go beyond that.

Which brings us to the question of what kind of non-politician serves Nehru-Gandhi interests best ?

It can’t be NGO-activists of the NAC mould. They have their uses outside the business of government. But more importantly the Nehru-Gandhis need the aura of benevolence almost exclusively to themselves. Their brand of messianic politics depends on that exclusivity.

Hence the man running the business of government must be a technocrat in the Manmohan Singh mould to appeal to the Middle Class while not diluting the Nehru-Gandhi brand in the eyes of the BPL class.

Which brings us to the question of which Technocrat might that be ?

Of all the technocrat lateral entrants to the Congress extended family, Nandan Nilekani has been the most low profile, keeping above controversies while maintaining a laser focus on his job. As a successful author with a reformist mindset and a wealth creator he is a middle class role model in the Manmohan Singh mould. He also is a unique position bridging Rahul Gandhi’s 2 India’s though the UID project.

If one were to hedge bets on the most likely non-politician to succeed Manmohan Singh it would be Nandan Nilekani - a choice with the potential to blow the wind of the sails of the Opposition. This is not to say the choice is not without it’s risks. As a Corporate product a Nilekani’ ability to manage political contradictions will be far more limited than a Manmohan Singh. But then the Nehru-Gandhi brand has demonstrated tremendous resilience in weathering political failings.

So if indeed Rahul Gandhi opts out of public office and a technocrat is sprung up, what does it mean to the BJP ?

The BJP’s or a 3rd front’s odds of electoral success in a Lok Sabha election largely rest on monumental bungling by the Congress. To date, despite all the political setbacks, the credibility of the Nehru Gandhi remains unaffected. For the current electoral trend in favor of the Congress to reverse, a necessary precondition is an issue on which the Nehru-Gandhis are held personally responsible causing irreversible damage to their credibility.

It would be a foolish strategy on the part of the BJP to hitch it’s fortunes on the likelihood of that happening. By staying out of office the Nehru-Gandhis have bought sufficient insurance.

In the absence of such monumental bungling and if challenged by a non-politician technocrat, the BJP will face a steep challenge in finding it’s path back to power with most of it’s current leadership weighed down by political baggage of one kind or the other.

In the absence of a new grassroots movement that effects a fundamental shift in the political landscape, the imperatives of this Nehru-Gandhi strategic calculus demand that the BJP start looking for a fresh face without any political baggage preferably outside it’s fold to be viable in 2019 if not in 2014.

Related tweets:

There we go people summarizing the known and tucked deep inside the piece a hint on the unknown LT “@pragmatic_d” about 1 hour ago via Twitter for iPhone

This is why a non-politician technocrat will complete the picture about 2 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone

RT “@KanchanGupta: @offstumped You wrongly credit Dileep P It was Giri who famously said ‘ToI editor’s job is the second most important.’”

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Filed under: India Lok Sabha Elections 2009

34 Responses

  1. Umesh says:

    Point, Nandan Nilekani has no political experience. Manmohan singh had at least fought an election earliar. and he was Leader of opposition in Rajya sabha for some time.

    This seems a little far-fetched calculation. Taking a Mathematical argument -: if you wanna find out sine 30 using the power series expansion as opposed to the pythogorean method.

  2. Hey says:

    Highly unlikely as Nilekani will surely turn down the offer. About BJP, why not Arun Shourie as an intellectual, honest PM?

  3. Spinoza says:

    My first reaction was Oh s**t! Seems far fetched, but so was the idea of MMS being PM. Wouldn’t he have to learn the ropes of working in the cabinet first?

  4. Jaydev says:

    Nandan Nilenkani as PM!! Nice choice, but it will be difficult for him..

  5. venkatesh says:

    Unlikely. Nilekani, i dont think will be a doormat as MMS is. He may lose some spine, but cannot become impotent like MMS

  6. rone says:

    yoss boss why are you highly invested in this idea?
    con cannot win if they not project “avatar prince who is in a different plane from all things political in this country” but has the magical family brand name.

  7. rone says:

    or are you promoting him?

  8. rone says:

    it is going to be AJ and NAMO is going to be the key player backing-part of it.

  9. rone says:

    #AJ-NAMO is the the ticket for 2014.

  10. Ketan says:

    Yes, even I’ve been arguing for long that Rahul Gandhi won’t be the PM candidate at least in 2014. The family’s a great thing going for them in the current arrangement – all power, zero responsibility.

    The person who seems least likely to be made PM is Pranab Mukherjee. I won’t be surprised if one from among the somewhat seasoned politicians becomes the PM. E.g., P. Chidambaram, Digvijay Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, etc. Because their position will always remain weak within the party. If they ‘deviate’ too much from the lines they’re supposed to toe, there’s always Tehelka, CBI or mainstream media to frighten them with some expose or the other. So, I don’t think the family would be too worried even if the PM-candidate would’ve actually managed to win an LS seat.

    They might also bring in someone like Montek Singh or Farooq Abdullah (yeah, he’s from NC, but What’s the harm in trying? ;) He can impress so many constituencies). A. K. Anthony, Murli Deora & Shivraj Patil are also possible. Would Pratibha Patil be eligible? Some regional politician like Rossiah, Ashoks (Gehlot & Chavan), Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde might also be tried. Remember, one of the goals of selecting the PM-candidate is to instill confidence among party-workers and the like that loyalty to the family pays.

    The reason I’m skeptical of Nandan Nilekeni as a choice is because in vote reservoirs of UP-Bihar-Jharkhand, if the prime ministerial candidate is a non-Gandhi physical appearance matters. He/she has to look non-entity enough so that voters would be convinced that the candidate is a proxy for NG-family. Of course, nobody can do a better job of that than our current PM. Nandan Nilekeni, unfortunately does not have that look. In fact, it’s for the same reason Chavan & Vilasrao D. won’t be tried. Nilekeni would become easy fodder for the opposition ["shahar ki computer company ka CEO gaaon ke gareeb kisaanon ka dard kya jaane"]

    But of course, them anything can happen in politics – Congress’ 2014 candidate could be Narendra Modi! ;) But what seems certain is that next PM would be from Congress/UPA. [Though, I don't know if recently announced Delhi University elections point to a different trend?]

    On a serious note, most likely candidates to me seem Ghulam Nabi Azad & A. K. Anthony.

    PS: At three places you used “it’s”, it should’ve been “its”.

  11. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Offstumped, sharath. sharath said: The Nandan Nilekani wild card: (via @offstumped) Interesting observation. [...]

  12. Milind says:

    I think if not from non-political background, they will not declare any candidate and best fit dummy might be Jyotiraditya Shindhia or Sachin Pilot as their dad couldn’t become PM and they are having same profile as Rahul Gandhi minus NG Dynasty. NRN can be one option.
    Please reserve President post of Sushilkumar Shinde as he is going to become that one day…

  13. KKumar says:

    It will be A. K. Anthony, it fits well on grand Christianization plan.

  14. Manoj Agarwal says:

    This is an excercise in futulity. Second guessing the name of next non-NG PM candidate. I don’t think it serves any purpose.

  15. offstumped says:

    People – Missing the point of this post.

    It’s not whether Individual A succeeds or Individual B.

    It is to highlight the flaw in the strategic calculus of the BJp

    - in assuming the obvious as they did in 2004 and underestimated non-politician as they did in 2009.

    Think of this as a thought experiment to show how the Congress has the flexibility to spring a surprise and there is enough precedence to lend weight to such a scenario.

    Hence the current BjP non-strategy of:

    – nation will tire of Congress
    – pendulum will eventually swing our way
    – no need for us to do anything radical or change strategy. Let us just be “non-shrill” and “acceptable” enough to lead an anti-congress coalition

    is deeply flawed.

  16. seadog4227 says:

    Contrast your article with another one from Swapan Dasgupta on pretty much a similar subject
    I repeat my point: any journo obtains “scoops” or “exposes” or performs “sting operations” on sundry politicians including those from the BJP. How come there are none from the KKangress, which has more than its’ share of morons, sycophants, criminals and anti-nationals in all the states of the Union?
    Do “straightforward” journos lack the contacts or the edge?

  17. rone says:

    yoss boss,
    i am surprised that you are coming up with arguments again and again that BJP is doing nothing.
    Are you saying the BJP governments in the states are not governing good comparing to congress governments?.
    The governments in Gujarat,Karnataka,MP,Utharakhand etc are doing really well compared to congress ones in Andhra,Maharastra,Delhi,Haryana,Rajasthan or Assam.
    So BJP is delivering GOOD GOVERNANCE.

    2004 or 2009 or 2014- if you do not have any presence in Kerala,Tamilnadu,Andhra,Orissa, west Bengal- almost 160-180 seats out of 542 you are in serious handicap.whether it is sultana, prince or any non political lackey , mms or nilekeni that is against you.So it all depends on winning on your turf and add up more alleys. And then that brings to ignoring their misdeeds(with the help of CBI which is a fine art perfected by UPA).

    You had blogged earlier that BJP need an economist.Actualy BJP has a proven economic model,not in some manifesto,but already perfectly implemented, in Gujarat and vouched by all.And this what is going to be replicated on national basis.

    And you had in a earlier blog commented about BJP getting bogged down by Rammandir/religion issue.

    This is a party which had the guts to readmit MR.Jaswant singh even though many people in the party does not agree with many of his views.This party has engaged MR.Manohar Parickar to work on good governace , Mr.Rajeev chandrasekahar to work on an action plan and Mr.Sahasrabudhe is in to training model cadres.So this not going ahead as a one agenda”Jairamji” party as you suggest.

    Chief ministers of the party ,lead by MR.Modi are practically doing and proving to this country that BJP is the good alternative to UPA government.

    With friends like you we do not need any…

    Ha ha ha

  18. offstumped says:

    Rone – thanks for the comment I can appreciate the sentiment but we need to be dispassionate in our critical thinking.

    If you go back to my posts day after Lok Sabha results and recently titled “forget 2014″ you will see the rationale behind what I an alluding to.

    BJP govts in the state were performing well even before May 16th, it didn’t make much material difference to the final outcome. The BJP has already peaked in it’s strongholds with the exception of Rajasthan. It’s diminishing returns from traditional strongholds from this point on.

    As far as breaking new ground goes you have yourself pointed to the East Coast vaccum. Cosmo urban voters in large metros Delhi, Mumbai remain out of it’s reach as well. One time base in Haryana and parts of andhra have been decimated. In UP it is nowhere near being a principal player.

    The Good governance summit and Vision 2020 documents are good academic exercises. Remember Maharashtra also saw a good academic vision document. Didn’t make any material difference to BJP reversing It’s fortune despite 10 yrs of incumbency.

    So my friend as much as I appreciate your angst, it ain’t enough.

    The electoral landscape needs to be fundamentally altered for the BJP to be viable. That won’t happen with academic exercises and resting on the laurels of state govt performance.The BJP has to go much more beyond that, even then it would be a two election cycle project.

  19. Umesh says:

    If the BJP has to pick up in the East and the South they need to pick up economic issues and development. Their best chance is in Orissa with a 16% voteshare in the last election. Their first job should be to increase that to 25%[As in next pancvhayat elections, in 2012). This will automatically bring Congress into below 25%. BJD is too strong to be touched now in Orissa.

    In West Bengal they should aim at the Bhadarlok, ultra-religious Hindu elite who dont like Mamta. There is a strong anti-communist vote in West Bengal. With Mamata going naxal in her speeches they can aim for getting the anti-Mamta space. Their future with Mamata is gone completely.

  20. Pub Chick says:

    Excellent satire.

  21. Manoj Agarwal says:

    I don’t think there would be anymore technocrat/bureaucrat type of PM. Of course, I can’t be 100% sure but this is an idea whose time has gone. In politics, everything has a shelf life. This idea of first family of Congress, if repeated, will give only diminishing returns. If they do it again, it will only benefit BJP and who knows their non-strategy may pay off as nation may actually get tired of a puppet PM.

  22. Offstumped, though I get the gist of the article and the point you are trying to make about weak opposition, there is an even more interesting point that I would like to ask you.
    Now I will need to do to you what you did to Shekar Gupta. Is there something you are hiding from us?. How did u close in on Nilekani when there are loads of PM material bureaucrats with them?. Dont tell me this was a wild guess. Why cant it be Montek or Pitroda or someone else.

  23. [...] External reading: Could Nandan Nilekani be a wild card? [...]

  24. rone says:


    i agree with you on many things and do admit i got passionate a bit.

    But your center point of bringing in a non politico,this is not a surprise but political immorality and political fraud.

    You sell a product UPA2 which is a discredited and failed one and and you just re-brand with some good new brand name, but sell the same product is a fraud on this country.
    So,I believe,hope Mr.Nilekeni or in that matter any other gentleman, with honor and national pride will not be party to this sham

  25. rone says:

    I was re reading the comment i posted .

    Mr.Nilekeni’s name was something thrown up by Yoss as an hypothesis.
    But when i commented, i have made a sweeping remark about MR.Manmohan singh and Mr.Nilekeni.In the matter of MMS i stand by my comment but in the matter of Mr.Nilekeni i am wrong.
    i sincerely do apologize.
    I apreciate his work in the IT industry.
    And do appreciate his work in the UID project.

  26. Andy says:

    Let Nandan get this act right on the much hyped Unique Card project.

  27. Sharat says:

    Nandan as PM !!

    Anyway a long shot !

  28. @Offstumped

    How does it matter whether BJP gets its strategy right or wrong! They wouldn’t be any better than the present government anyway. In fact, I think we are better off with these loonies sitting in the opposition.

  29. cynicalcount says:

    Nice balloon floated by Offstumped.

  30. [...] Filed under: India Lok Sabha Elections 2009 Offstumped – Commentary on an Impatient and Aspirational India [...]

  31. arjun says:

    Chances of BJP coming to power are slim primarily because even if Congress does badly, it will still emerge the single largest party maybe ahead of BJP by 50 seats or so.

    BJP came to power only because of UP and the 57 seats there were because of Ram Mandir. Unless they get their act together in UP or expand fast in new states, it is ighly unlikely they will be able to become the SLP. They also know that.

    Right now, Congress will use its standard strategy of BJP is equally corrupt. BJP has to convince the people why they stalled the parliament for the whole season and make the corruption tag stick to Congress. That is the challenge for the BJP.

  32. Complex says:

    My bet is on Kapil Sibal.

  33. [...] if a mid term change at the center results in the rolling together of the twin platforms of Smart Welfare and Aspirational India into [...]

  34. [...] a hope that it will insulate it from middleclass anger and let them continue with their thievery. One of India’s foremost political analyst has clearly alluded to the possibility. Middleclass anger might have a limited electoral fallout but Congress political managers are [...]

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