But it is not too late even now. The Congress can promote someone else. I give two alternatives below: One from the Congress and one from its cousin, the Nationalist Congress Party, so named because in 1999 its leader had objected to a foreigner leading the Congress and walked out of it.
The alternative from within the Congress is Mr Chidambaram. If the Congress emerges as the second largest party, he is the man for the job.
True, no one likes him very much. True, also that his son is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and other agencies — note that no case has been filed yet. I wonder why.
But these two reasons are not enough to rule him out. The fact is, of the various alternatives within the Congress, he is the most suitable — highly educated, highly experienced, very austere, very suave, very efficient with a supreme mastery of details, a broad-minded outlook — you name it, he has got what it takes to be the prime minister of this great country.
But there are two requirements he does not satisfy. One is that he is not from the North and can’t campaign in Hindi and also that his colleagues in the Congress party who are mostly from the North detest him because he is, or appears to be, so arrogant.
The other is that he is not a toady of the Gandhi family. But he gets along with big business.
The first problem will not matter if he is anointed by the family. The second, however, could be a problem because it is entirely possible that Sonia Gandhi wants her son to be prime minister.
If so, it is game, set and match to the BJP. It can rejoice because the Congress will lose the votes of the waverers whose numbers are increasing by the day. They will either not vote at all or simply waste their vote by voting for some irrelevant candidate.
But there is no hurry. Mr Chidambaram can be chosen after the election. Sonia Gandhi set that precedent in 2004.
The other possibility I have been talking about to my friends is Sharad Pawar because he is needed for exactly the same reason as Mr Chandrashekhar was in 1991: To administer a tranquilliser to the country.
Older readers will recall that the 11 months of the V P Singh government — from December 1989 to November 1990 — had torn the country apart because it had implemented the Mandal Commission report on reservations for the backward classes. To add to the disquiet, L K Advani had gone on his rath yatra to demand the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The BJP was supporting the V P Singh government from “outside”.
When Mr Chandrashekhar took over after the Singh government fell, the country was seething with different kind of furies. But in just one month he cooled down the national mood. I think Mr Pawar will have the same effect. He is that kind of a politician.
Indeed, he has even more experience than Mr Chidambaram. He is respected by everyone. He gets along with everyone. He is both market- and business-friendly. Claimants such as Mamata Banerjee stand no chance.
Once again, people will say these are early days because no one knows how the numbers will pan out. But that doesn’t hold much water as the structure of the numbers is clear: None of the state leaders can win more than the number of Lok Sabha seats in his or her state. In the end, it will come down to how well Mr Pawar manages the non-Congress parties and presents the Congress with an offer it can’t refuse.
It will be sweet revenge for him for the humiliation of 1999.