Two recent statements by a senior poltician have potential to shape the future of Indian politics, if not for the longer term, for the next five years at least. One statement says the “Prime Minister must be secular and not popular”, while the second one says, “I read in the papers that someone is ready for a third term.” For the record, these statements have been made by the UPA’s most trusted ally, the Nationalist Congress Party or NCP’s Chief, Sharad Pawar.

What do these statements imply? The first could be interpreted that Narendra Modi would have to wait to get into 7, Race Course Road, and the second could mean that the time has not yet come for Rahul Gandhi to be the next Prime Minister. The reasons are obvious.

No doubt, Modi is considered the most popular leader among the current lot aspiring for the top job . But the issue is of his acceptability within his party, the BJP, and within the entire political system. If you talk about his party, the rank and file wants him, but not the leaders (frontline leaders who take big decisions). But, the question is why are senior BJP leaders hesitant in accepting Modi's candidature?

Are these leaders afraid of Modi and his popularity, or is there more to it? To find the answer, let us go back to 1996 and 1998, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance formed the Government. On both occasions, Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the Government. If Vajpayee Government lasted for 13 days in 1996, then it went on rule for 13 months in 1998.

In 1996, the Vajpayee Government got support from other parties. While in 1998, it was a coalition Government that had 12 allies from virtually across the country. Yet, even a charismatic leader such as Vajpayee could not manage to keep the coalition together, and it finally fell.

Now, switch to 2013. One of the key constituent of NDA, Janata Dal (United), has openly expressed its reservations against Modi as PM, while other constituents, such as Biju Janata Dal and Shiromani Akali Dal, are yet to express their views on Modi but are unlikely to support a Modi-led Government in the Centre. So, the big question is, how will a BJP-led coalition get the magical figure of 272 seats and form the Government?

Modi’s supporters may argue that he will polarise votes, bagging a good number of seats for a BJP-led coalition. But, we should not forget that if Modi can polarise Hindu votes, then there is also a possibility of polarisation of Muslim votes. Keeping these things in mind, the best possible scenario for BJP (if it declares Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate) is 180-190 seats in the next general elections, due in 2014.

If this happens, the BJP-led coalition will require another 83-93 seats to exceed the simple majority of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. Going by the public posturing of NDA allies, getting this number seems very difficult. And this is possibly one reason why BJP's frontline leaders are not keen to endorse Modi. Remember, going by the general perception, if BJP does not declare Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate, there is a serious doubt whether his party will even cross the 150 seat-mark.

Another looming question is that Modi is popular, but is he secular? Despite leading a State in a secular, democratic nation, his secular credentials have always been under question. There is a saying in the political dictionary of India that a secular person is one who does not belong to BJP. With this kind of perception, it will be difficult for BJP to bring non-Congress ‘secular’ parties on board if Modi is chosen as the candidate for PM. This also dims the chance of getting another Prime Minister from Gujarat after Morarji Desai.

Now, If popular Modi is not secular, then can we think of secular Rahul Gandhi as the next PM? After his elevation as Vice President of Congress, there was big noise about his taking on a bigger role. This was fuelled by his address to an industry chamber. Ask any Congress leader, and he or she will say that if UPA comes back to power, then certainly Rahul will be the next Prime Minister.

But, is that so? The Congress has always sprung surprises. Even in 2004, when everybody was talking about Sonia Gandhi, she declined and brought in Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, who was also given a second term in 2009. The qiuestion then is, can Singh be replaced by Rahul if UPA comes to power for the third term?

There is no doubt that Rahul needs to prove a lot. First, in his two terms as Member of Parliament, he has always turned down ‘requests’ to be a part of the Government. Second, he has not opened his mouth on key issues such as scams or even crime against women either inside Parliament or outside it. So, how does one judge such as person?

Also, will Rahul be able to manage a coalition? No one can deny the fact that unless there is miracle, the Government in India will always be a coalition and coalitions need a different kind of management. Very few leaders have this skill , and Rahul certainly is not one among them. Singh is among the few such leaders. That is why he is neither ruling out or nor ruling in about accepting a third term as Prime Minister, if the Congress-led UPA were to be re-elected, although he did comment that this was a hypothetical question.

Singh is a man of very few words, but whenever he speaks, he does so with a full sense of the situation. This time, too, he has conveyed the message well. Pawar and some other leaders, too, have captured this sense. It remains to be seen if other parties also understand this sooner rather than later.