It's been a while coming. A contest dubbed as the grand final of 2004, had all along seemed like an Australia-Bangladesh one-day match.
The National Democratic Alliance, riding high on Prime Minister Vajpayee's charisma and stature, seemed unstoppable. The question on most people's mind was not if it would win the general election, but what the margin of victory would be. Will it better the 1999 benchmark? Should the Bharatiya Janata Party have played hard ball with its allies, grabbed more seats, and tried to acquire a simple majority in the Lok Sabha on its own.
Interestingly, even the youth, it seemed, would want the incumbent government back in power -- never mind it was for all practical purposes a gerontocracy.
Sonia Gandhi's Congress party seemed content going through the motions of putting up a fight. The political equivalent of bookies -- in the form of informed opinion-makers -- were willing to throw in the towel, if they had not done so already.
What would a Sourav Ganguly do when faced with such a grim prospect?
One, for sure, shuffle the deck. If the players in the XI are not match-winners drop them. It's an uphill battle anyway, so rely less on experience and bring in young fresh blood. Even if the match ends up as expected, at least he would have sent the message that he tried and lost. Not given up easily.
Sonia, apparently, has done a pre-match huddle and come up with a new strategy.
There are as many aspirants to the prime ministership as Pakistan had for its captaincy at one time. Everybody wants to be a leader, no one wants to be a follower. It's a contentious issue -- and one that has bedeviled the Congress party's efforts to find allies. If Sonia Gandhi had won all the elections for her party since 1999, when she first entered the electoral fray, her acceptance would never have been an issue. A Sourav Ganguly is respected today, even by his critics, because he has won matches for the country. A string of failures, and he will be thrown to the wolves.
Sonia has ducked the question, at least temporarily. When the magic number of 272 members of Parliament seems so far away, it is futile to argue who should be the prime minister or let alliance efforts be held hostage to the question. Laloo Prasad Yadav wants the job, as does Mayawati, as does Sharad Pawar, as does Mulayam Singh. At the end of counting day, May 13, if the NDA falters at the post, the issue will be decided by who brings how many MPs to the table.
Leave this issue aside for the moment, knowing her foreign origin is of concern to many. And a few allies have listened. The Samajwadi Party could still play spoiler, as can the Bahujan Samaj Party, but Sonia Gandhi has at least shown a willingness to listen to the footfalls.
Another change is the emphasis on youth and fresh blood, perhaps as never before since the 1985 election. Jyotiraditya Scindia's or Sachin Pilot's candidature from the family pocket borough, may not really be called a masterstroke but it takes some amount of courage to pitch for inexperience in a critical poll battle. It wasn't that there were no other, seasoned, aspirants for these seats.
Family name and such are imponderables in this election where the Vajpayee shadow seems to stretch over the landscape. To back inexperience -- like Milind Deora's in South Mumbai, or even Rahul Gandhi's in Amethi -- can either be a masterstroke, an act of desperation, or what management gurus simply call thinking out of the box. Pitting actor Govinda against veteran Ram Naik certainly is -- even if doesn't win the party Mumbai North, at the least the contest becomes interesting.
It is a sign, all right. In an election where the youth form a significant voting bloc, it would be foolish to present the same clichéd ideas. This is a segment that comes with disdain for all things political as its default setting; to appeal to them, to bring them to the ballot boxes, you need to send a message that you are listening to them, you will listen to them.
In cricketing terms, it is called blooding. Team India was built by inducting young talents like Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif -- the results didn't show up immediately, but the message went out that India was a team on the remake, no more the pushovers in international cricket they once were.
There are a couple of other things that Sonia Gandhi has done, which one could either attribute to political compulsions or a willingness to adapt. Her party's alliances with both the Nationalist Congress Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam -- one the most vocal critic of her foreign origins, and the other tainted by its association with the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, accused of involvement in her husband Rajiv Gandhi's assassination -- cannot have come about easily. More than these two parties, it called for a tremendous spirit of accommodation on her part personally to strike a deal with them. Politics does make for strange bedfellows, but even by that yardstick the alliances show a willingness not to be held hostage to personal predilections.
Finally, the resurrection of former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. All along, for the Congress party, it was as if 1991-96, when Rao became the first prime minister from outside the Gandhi-Nehru family to complete a five-year term, never happened. Never mind the country took its most significant economic decisions in that period -- critical decisions, the fruits of which the NDA has today claimed for itself. If parts of India are shining today, the power cables were laid by Rao and his government in the form of economic liberalization. But the Congress party pretended amnesia when it came to those five years.
That gross injustice to a former prime minister has now been undone. In the pantheon of former Congress prime ministers, Rao finds a place at last. Sonia Gandhi has sent a message to her party cadre that there was nothing to be ashamed of that tenure, and that the NDA has usurped their government's achievements as its own.
Together, are these election-winning strategies? Maybe, maybe not, we will know on May 13. But to use a cricketing analogy once again, no match is won till the last ball is bowled.
This is only the beginning. I suspect Sonia Gandhi is yet to play her real masterstroke. Watch her party's candidature from Lucknow.