The country is enmeshed in unprecedented political gridlock. Between now and the 2014 general elections, the current policy paralysis will worsen. There is little likelihood of early polls, although every party is preparing for them. Early polls won't extricate India out of the current mess. The situation may worsen if the two national parties, the Congress and BJP, lose heavily in the coming elections, as they are expected to. The only saviour can be the next prime minister -- provided he is not like Manmohan Singh.

For the current crisis, the Congress is to blame. This is accepted in political circles but needs reiteration so that UPA-1 and UPA-2's blunders are not repeated. It is fashionable to make fun of Mamata Bannerjee, lionize Dinesh Trivedi, speak of middle-class betrayal, and so forth. It makes good copy. But it does not change/ alter political realities. So long West Bengal votes Mamata Bannerjee to unrivalled power, she will be a force. If you take her support to form a coalition government at the Centre, you will be at her mercy.

Mamata, like it or not, is the new face of coalition politics which has gripped the country since the early 1990s. P.V.Narasimha Rao was the last prime minister to be able to manufacture a Lok Sabha majority. A.B.Vajpayee's earliest NDA government fell by one vote. By that token, Manmohan Singh has been lucky in two terms. His government has had no dearth of allies. But since those allies have been badly used, vilified, threatened and defrauded, they have taken revenge on the UPA regime. If this terrible history is not purged once for all, the Centre will grow weaker as a result of coalition politics.

Everything, as stated before, depends on the prime minister. Manmohan Singh said this week in Parliament that "The difficult decisions we have to take are made more difficult by the fact that we are a coalition government and we have to evolve policy keeping in mind the need to maintain a consensus." That is stating the obvious. But who has made it rather more difficult for UPA-2 to function, to be unable to break out of policy paralysis?

It is none other than the prime minister.

In Manmohan Singh's defense, it would be argued that he is a weak prime minister, that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul are the real power centres, but that since the Nehru-Gandhis no longer connect with the masses or understand politics, the Congress ship is going down. That's just too bad. But one infirm prime minister does not make all coalition politics unmanageable.

Manmohan Singh speaks the language of defeatism. The country and its politics are awfully young to tolerate such whingeing. The powerful new and older chief ministers, including J.Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi and Mamata Bannerjee, do not appear pessimistic. Any of them, at least in terms of political energies invested into a prime-ministership, would do better than Manmohan Singh.

To repeat, everything depend on the next PM, whether the elections are held on time or earlier. Since the verdict would be mixed, and a coalition government is inevitable at the Centre, success hinges on how coalition politics is worked. Manmohan Singh looks at coalition governance from the wrong angle. He fixes growth targets, for example, and complains that coalition politics makes them impossible to deliver. He classically blunders.

Politics, as such, is not about targets but vision. Only a technocrat sets up targets. In coalition politics, even vision must be cautiously projected. Modesty pays. The overarching aim of a coalition government ought to be to remain viable and united, engender trust within, encourage and celebrate give and take, and slowly build on newly gained strengths. Everything is a trade-off in coalition politics, and a prime minister who can strike roots in coalitional uncertainties has a chance.

To conclude, the Congress-led UPA government had two terms to master the complexities of coalition politics. But it carried on as if it was a single-party regime. It is paying for its hubris. But the Congress's arrogance has directly weakened the Centre and, as an unintended consequence, affected the BJP's national standing too. Both parties need to introspect. Their futures would be jeopardized by a PM whiz from one of the regional parties -- somebody who isn't like Manmohan Singh at all.