In most democracies, by the time an election approaches the field of possible prime ministers or presidents has narrowed to two or three.
Not so in India. Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, remains the favourite to replace Congress’s Manmohan Singh and become India’s next prime minister, but the field of possible alternatives seems to be growing by the week.
It is not just Rahul Gandhi, the hapless Congress party vice-president (his mother is the boss) who has never said he wants the job but has long been assumed to be the Congress candidate.
Among the latest to throw their hats in the ring is Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar who is credited with restoring law and order and overseeing a surge of economic growth in one of India’s poorest states. “I am qualified,” he told NDTV television news. “What do I lack?”
Kumar, an engineer who has methodically fostered the development of Bihar by organising the building of rural roads and promoting girls’ education, contrasted his experience as a member of parliament, a national minister and as a state leader with the records of Modi and Gandhi.
“While one doesn’t have the experience of parliament, the other has never run a state. I have both experiences. Am I less qualified than them?” he asked.
Then there are Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee, the two ambitious politicians who run the states of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively. Each sees herself as a possible national leader.
Only days after joining an 11-party “third front” of regional and leftist parties opposed to the BJP-Congress duopoly that has long dominated Indian politics, Jayalithaa struck out on her own, refusing to give up Tamil Nadu constituencies to the left and forming what seems like a “fourth front” of herself and Banerjee.
Many supporters of the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, a left-leaning anti-corruption group, want its leader Arvind Kejriwal to be prime minister, although he – like Gandhi – has been curiously coy about saying whether he really wants to be at the helm of the world’s largest democracy.
Even within the BJP and Congress, there are prime ministerial hopefuls jostling for position and waiting for any sign of weakness in their official candidates.
So if a BJP led by the uncompromising Modi fails to win a big enough share of the 545 seats in the lower house of parliament, other BJP leaders are likely to present themselves as conciliatory candidates more capable of attracting the regional allies needed to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority. They include Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the successful chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and Sushma Swaraj, currently leader of the BJP opposition in parliament.
As for Congress, Rahul Gandhi’s party colleagues – including Palaniappan Chidambaram, the finance minister today – can keep their hopes alive whether he wins or loses.
In the unlikely event that Congress wins the election, Gandhi might follow his mother in naming a technocrat to run the next government; Sonia Gandhi chose Manmohan Singh, who has been prime minister for the past decade. If Congress loses catastrophically, the party might finally have to consider sidelining the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and formally naming another politician as candidate in the next general election due in 2019.
Modi, in short, remains the most likely person to become prime minister after the votes are counted on May 16. But Indian politics is so dynamic that a dozen other men and women are still in with a chance.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief
India elections: Insurgent “Common Man” steals election show, beyondbrics
Jayalalithaa lays out campaign to be India’s PM, FT
Running India’s fastest-growing state, FT Video
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