FOR the first 54 years of India’s democracy Uttar Pradesh provided seven out of eight prime ministers, three from three generations of the same family.
The exception, Morarji Desai of Gujarat, proved the rule since he was betrayed and replaced in 1979 by a UP politician, Charan Singh, whose term lasted for a few fortunately forgotten months.
Betrayal played a part again when V.P. Singh followed Rajiv Gandhi into the chair, although this Singh at least used the electoral route to power, rather than manipulation of numbers in the Lok Sabha. V.P. Singh learnt that betrayal is a double-edged dagger when he was sidestepped by Chandra Shekhar Singh (popularly known only by his first two names) in 1990. Perhaps parliament, and India, had had enough of UP politicians by then, for they disappeared from the top echelons of Delhi for a decade.
But UP was back in business with the arrival of the National Democratic Alliance, this time on its best behaviour: Atal Behari Vajpayee, MP from Lucknow, turned out to be one of India’s best prime ministers.
However, an emerging fact was inescapable. UP, the state with the strongest political muscle, had begun to punch below its self-designated weight at the national level. After 2004, the Congress, which should have been grateful that it sent both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to parliament, began to punish UP for the temerity of electing other parties to the Lucknow legislature.
The Congress philosophy can be best summed up in the words of a Frank Sinatra song that Rahul Gandhi certainly knows but cannot afford to sing in public: My way, or the highway.
In effect, this has been the theme of his current campaign too; only Congress, with its lock on the centre’s resources, can bring development to UP. UP representation in the cabinet in the two United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administrations has been a sparse set of token figures with portfolios as vague as their CVs.
The cynical compulsions of election-eve gesture-politics have brought in Beni Prasad Verma and Ajit Singh, but their tenure will be determined by their performance in the UP polls. If they turn out to be duds, they return to the highway. No one from UP has been among the top five Big Cats of the Delhi jungle since 2004: prime minister, finance, home, external affairs or defence.
The UP electorate has a peculiar challenge in the 2012 assembly election. It is expected not only to stabilise Lucknow, but also Delhi. Every voter knows that the ripple, or wave, that builds in Lucknow will travel upstream to Delhi.
The complications begin. If UP has four claimants to power, then Delhi has at least three uneasy partners in what might be called prime ministerial space. (Some would include Pranab Mukherjee and make that four.)
Dr Manmohan Singh can never be certain how much of that space he actually controls despite being in office. His existential problem is that he now represents the immediate past of Congress rather than its immediate future.
Till 2009 it was certain that he would lead his party and alliance into the general elections; it is equally certain now that he will not lead his side into another election. Even a debacle in UP will not deter Congress from anointing Rahul Gandhi as its standard-bearer for 2014, or whenever national polls are held next.
If Congress does well in UP the clamour for transition will upgrade into an unmanageable uproar. It could become almost embarrassing for the prime minister to continue. The only question, therefore, is not if but when Dr Singh will step down.
Such a relationship between incumbent and heir is uneasy at best, and competitive at worst. Dr Singh’s partnership with Ms Sonia Gandhi worked because they quickly worked out the parameters of their respective responsibilities. But Rahul Gandhi is not seeking to replace his mother; he wants to replace both his mother and the prime minister.
If he is showing some diffidence now it is only because of a lack of confidence. The UP results will determine whether this confidence goes up, sinks, or, quaintly, remains in the zone of uncertainty. The Congress party and its allies may be able to live, even thrive, in such uncertainty. India cannot.
The UP government is on a float, neither here nor there. It must seek some destination. India wants its prime minister to be right; it will accept that its prime minister will be occasionally wrong. What it will not tolerate is indecision.
This UPA government has been living off a convertible calendar, postponing decisions in the cause of some election or the other, since decisions tend to hurt some demographic constituency.
Elections will not end. After UP, there will be elections for president of India. Congress can afford to lose in UP, but it cannot afford to lose the poll for Rashtrapati Bhavan. How many more decisions will be postponed because of the sensitivities of left or right? Nothing will be left for Congress if it doesn’t get it right in March 2012.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.