In the context of the Number Two position in the Union Cabinet, here is something worth recalling. It involved Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, Behram Contractor, editor of Afternoon Courier and Despatch, and the pecking order in that party.
At a meet-the-press organised by the Gujarati journalist, where the answers were in Marathi and some questions and responses in English, the Supremo noticed Contractor taking copious notes in a, as was his wont, school exercise book. He had not asked a single question.
That troubled Bal Thackeray. He asked the editor if he had anything to ask. “No,” was the response. Thackeray goaded him, saying “We were once colleagues in the Free Press Journal; you must ask; I am not comfortable at your silence.”
Here is how it went, in the early 1990s.
Q: Must I really ask?
A: Yes, you should.
A: Of course!
Q: OK. Since you are the Number 1 in the Shiv Sena, who is Number 2?
That caught the cartoonist-turned-editor off guard. The discomfiture was palpable. Had it been anyone else, and Thackeray a witness, he may have caught the mood — laughter from journalists, a red-faced man holding the press conference and Contractor, the expressionless inquisitor.
It was a stand-off between a coarsely witty cartoonist and a pokerfaced humourist who poked fun at any and everybody, mostly with his one-liners.
There is no such thing as a Number 2, Thackeray insisted, but Contractor was firm. The numbers he was taught as a kid said 2 had to follow 1. What meaning did Number 1 have if there was no Number 2?
That was asking Thackeray: who is your successor. The party had about a dozen leaders who had all come into the Sena soon after it was conceptualised but he always took counsel, if he wanted to, from them, and then decided to what he may have pre-decided. Democratic discussion stopped there.
That logic of Behram Contractor, the President-elect, Pranab Mukherjee seems not to have. He told Zee News, as reported in the DNA, that "there is nothing such as No 2, No 3 and No 4 in the party". Note the reference to the party when the issue was about the second rank in the pecking order in the Union Cabinet. After the Prime Minister, “rest are all equals”.
Whenever he was referred to as the Number Two in the past, the Congress’ political trouble-shooter never discouraged it. His position — even if mythical as he now says such a position is — was high in the order because both Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi (the party) used him to sort out troublesome issues.
But then, he was so high with such clout that he could do what he wanted with the Budgets, the economic policy that he had to be ‘booted upstairs’ as The Economist said, because, he “the veteran leader of the Congress party presided over a wretched deterioration in the country’s economic prospects”. He was too big to be booted out. The prime minister was perhaps either helpless, bemused or both.
So formal positioning as the next in the pecking did not matter to Mukherjee then. It perhaps does to Sharad Pawar because he is not the Number One in any place except in Maharashtra where he has unquestioned sway over his political party, Nationalist Congress Party. To Bal Thackeray, it mattered little as to who the next because he was on top.
In the political parties in India, we know the CPM has a polit bureau with the General Secretary being the honcho. Likewise in CPI, and in Telugu Desam, and in DMK as well as — how can we forget it? — in the AIADMK. In the Bharatiya Janata Party, till ill-health helped Atal Behari Vajpayee suddenly fade away — from sight and into silence — there were two Number 2s. One was him, the other, LK Advani.
With Nitin Gadkari at the helm, everyone seems to belong to any number on a scale of 1 to infinity, except that we don’t really know, despite Advani being an elder, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, both Leaders of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. It is a structure-less — of late, of course — political machinery, far too democratic for its own good, perhaps. It is virtually a roulette, numbers in a heady spin, everyone looking for the fortune in politics.
It is the Congress where everyone knows there are two places — Number One being Sonia Gandhi, Number Two being Rahul Gandhi, and perhaps Manmohan Singh, as prime minister, perhaps Number Three. So how could Pawar, astute, calculative, careful assume that one would want, in the ruling hierarchy to be Number 2 to a Number 3?
Bal Thackeray however is not naïve as Sonia Gandhi to now to limit the hierarchy to two, himself and son Uddhav. The third too is around, Aditya Thackeray. If Raj Thackeray reconciles with the cousin, or the extended family, which is unlikely except for some electoral adjustment for Sena’s and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s mutual benefit in due course then the coveted No2 could get messy.
So placements, as at a high table at a dinner, matter. If it is a buffet, it does not. Politics is after all the latter where you reach the food tables first and grab as much as you can and hope you move right up to the top.