Will Chamling become the Deve Gowda of 2014?

Most opinion polls predict a seriously hung Lok Sabha in 2014. A Third Front government, supported by either the BJP or Congress Party, looks very possible. This will be reminiscent of the Third Front government of 1996-98, a motley collection of small and regional parties headed by Deve Gowda. Will something similar happen again next year? And if so, who will play the Deve Gowda role in 2014?

Now, some analysts pooh-pooh the chances of another Third Front government. They see the BJP winning over 200 seats, and returning to power. Others think the Congress could yet spring a surprise.

Everybody agrees that the Congress will win far fewer seats in 2014 than its 2009 tally of 206 seats. But some analysts argue that Congress can form a government after winning no more than 145 seats (as in 2004), whereas the BJP will need to win at last 180 seats to form a government, given its lower acceptability to potential allies because of its perceived anti-Muslim bias. Recent opinion polls suggest that the Congress will fall short of 145 seats, and the BJP short of 180 seats. So, a Third Front government is on the cards.

Many regional party leaders have supported either the Congress or BJP for decades, and now want a role reversal: they want the top job, supported by the bigger parties. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa are all interested in becoming prime minister, supported by either the Congress or BJP.

However, the 1996-98 experience suggests that a future Third Front government will not be headed by any powerful regional honcho. Every powerful regional boss will be opposed by rival bosses. Neither the BJP nor Congress will be keen on a strong regional boss becoming prime minister, and using this position to threaten the big parties in their home territory.

For these reasons, the prime minister chosen in 1996 was not by any big boss but Deve Gowda, followed later by Inder Gujral. Both were lightweights with no prospect of growing big and threatening other bosses or the Congress. For the same reasons, another lightweight may become prime minister in 2014.

An ideal lightweight should have some stature, without having the potential to grow and threaten other bosses. Such a candidate will not come to mind quickly: obscurity will be a qualification. So will a reputation for honesty, given today’s huge public anger over corruption.

One person who meets these requirements is the little-known Pawan Kumar Chamling, chief minister of Sikkim. Narendra Modi boasts of winning three state elections in a row, but Chamling has won four in a row. On the fourth occasion, in 2009, Chamling won no less than 30 of the 32 Assembly seats in Sikkim, a remarkable performance.

Sikkim was a highly corrupt state during the earlier rule of Nar Bahadur Bhandari. Chamling split away from Bhandari and fought the 1994 state election on a platform of providing clean government. Now, many politicians promise honest government but, on being elected, turn as corrupt as the rest. But in Sikkim, Chamling got re-elected time and again on a platform of clean governance. His opponents have tried to tar his reputation and accuse him of complicity in various scams, but the mud has not stuck.

Sikkim has flourished economically and socially under Chamling. Its GDP growth in 2007-12 averaged 9% annually, well above the national average. It has achieved 100% rural electrification and 100% household sanitation (it claims to be the only state with no public defecation). Its economic boom has been based on tourism, ample hydro-electricity, and success in attracting industries like pharmaceuticals.

Because of these achievements, Chamling is sometimes called the Narendra Modi of the Himalayan belt (it is not known whether he likes that title). He won the Diamond Prize for best small state in 2012, beating formidable and better-known rivals like Goa and Uttarakhand.

Like many small regional parties of the northeast, his Sikkim Democratic Front tends to support whichever big party is in power in New Delhi. Thus he was with the NDA under Vajpayee, and with the UPA under Manmohan Singh. He is acceptable to both the BJP and Congress, and not seen as a threat by either.

This combination of non-threatening acceptability, good performance and honest reputation will not be easy to beat. This is no guarantee that he will get the top job. It is not even known if he wants to come to New Delhi to head what will probably be a short-lived coalition, going by the 1996-98 experience. But he should be near the top of any list of dark horses in 2014.

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