Weekends can sometimes be devoted to idle speculation, so it should be permissible to look forward to 2014 and speculate on who could be prime minister after the Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress is in a position to lead a coalition (and this is a huge ‘if’), its preference as leader is certain to be Rahul Gandhi. But Mr Gandhi has shown a sustained reluctance to accept ministerial office. He has declared in the past that being prime minister is no big deal for members of his family, and he may be unwilling to accept the top job in a messy coalition — which, from this admittedly considerable distance of time, is what seems the most plausible electoral outcome. If Mr Gandhi opts out, and if Manmohan Singh is considered too old to continue, it is increasingly obvious that the Congress candidate will have to be P Chidambaram.
For a start, no one else in the Congress has his record in the government. He was successful as home minister — with a much better performance rating than Shivraj Patil and L K Advani, his immediate predecessors from 1998 to 2008. Now, as finance minister, he is showing a combination of energy level and focus that was missing in his predecessor. Since 2004, Chidambaram has also been the only minister to have come consistently prepared for ministerial meetings. Most important, he seems to have the ear of Sonia Gandhi, and played a role in the Congress leadership’s belated recognition (and public endorsement) of the vital importance of economic reform and fiscal rectitude. A look at the others sitting up on Raisina Hill (A K Antony, Sushilkumar Shinde and Salman Khurshid) should rule them out as options; ditto with the other leading lights of the government: Kamal Nath, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal and Veerappa Moily. Among the party office-bearers, Digvijay Singh is seen as too much of a maverick.
But this is not being written just to sing Mr Chidambaram’s praises. If he is to win acceptability for the top job, he needs to demonstrate that he can establish working relations with people of different political persuasions — remember that he had run-ins with state governments when he was home minister. He has a history of being prickly when faced with criticism, and not very tolerant of dissent, as he demonstrated recently by being peevish when the Reserve Bank did not do what he wanted, on interest rates. He also tends to micro-manage. But he is supremely intelligent, and should be able to recognise that anyone who hopes to lead a country like India needs to develop shock absorbers as a part of his personal armour, and to be wise rather than clever. In India’s age of scandal, he will also need to steer clear of controversy (his son has already been involved in one or two), and of course win the court battle over his 2009 election.
Most importantly, he will have to show results over the next 18 months, when there are severe limitations on what he can do. He has only one Budget to reverse fiscal trends, and with the best will in the world, there isn’t time to deliver the Goods and Services Tax in time for that. Many of the solutions that the government is tom-tomming are unlikely to materialise (such as foreign investment in airlines and higher foreign investment in insurance), and foreign investment in multi-brand retail is unlikely to have any material bearing on any product market before 2014. Earlier government initiatives have run aground too, like the special economic zones. Quite simply, reform is complicated. To underline his claim to the top job, Mr Chidambaram will have to lead the reform charge, bring down the deficit, reduce inflation, revive investment, and show better GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth. It is a test worthy of a future prime minister; the present one passed precisely such a test.