The BJP's choice

Print edition : July 20, 2002

THE stage seems set for the Bharatiya Janata Party to have its own candidate elected Vice-President without much of a contest. Senior BJP leader and former Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has emerged as the frontrunner. Undoubtedly, the Opposition parties will put up a contest, but as in the case of the presidential election, it will remain a fight over principles. In the electoral college which elects the Vice-President - comprising both Houses of Parliament - the odds are tilted heavily in favour of the National Democratic Alliance.

In keeping with its recent pattern, the BJP bulldozed its allies into accepting its choice; it decided on the nominee without even holding a discussion with its partners in the NDA. The allies approved the BJP's proposal at an NDA meeting held on July 15, the opening day of the monsoon session of Parliament. Interestingly, the agenda for the Vice-Presidential election was set by the Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, giving credence to the general impression that henceforth it will be he who will call the shots within both the party and the government.

Although the name of West Bengal Governor Viren Shah figured in discussions in the initial stages, besides those of Suraj Bhan and Bhai Mahavir, all former RSS pracharaks and Governors, the scale is tilted in favour of Shekhawat, Advani's personal choice. Besides, among all the names only Shekhawat can claim to have some semblance of support among other parties. "Shekhawatji will have a certain degree of acceptance among all parties, which is not the case with others. He has his own style of functioning; he can even carry his opponents along," said the newly appointed BJP spokesman and former Law Minister Arun Jaitley. "The announcement of his name remains a formality," said Jaitley.

The unambiguous stand of the BJP on the choice of the Vice-Presidential candidate has left its allies without too many options. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which initially seemed to be in favour of a second term for Krishan Kant, changed its mind. "We have not applied our mind to the issue as yet. We shall consider the issue at the appropriate time and our party president Chandrababu Naidu, will take a decision," said the TDP's leader in the Lok Sabha, K. Yerran Naidu. By not proposing any particular name, the TDP has made the BJP's task easier. Besides, the BJP has the unflinching support of its staunch ally, the Samata Party, which has said that it is the BJP's right to have its candidate elected as the Vice-President because it is the largest party in the alliance. "Only the BJP, being the largest party, has a right to this post," said Samata Party leader and Union Minister for Railways Nitish Kumar in an interview to a television channel. In view of the stand of these two bigger allies, the others will have no option but to fall in line.

Thus, armed with the support of its allies, the BJP has dispensed with the courtesy of consulting the Opposition to try and evolve a consensus. "For the Opposition parties, consensus means the choice of the minority segment, not that of the majority," said Jaitley, making it obvious that consultations with the Opposition parties were not on the cards, unlike in the case of the presidential election.

Although the Opposition remains fragmented in the wake of the presidential election, it is expected to join forces on the issue of the vice-presidential election. The Left parties hope that the entire Opposition will unite and give the NDA candidate a good fight. "Despite the bitter experience (with the Samajwadi Party and the Congress(I) during the presidential election), we are for a joint Opposition candidate to take on the NDA nominee," said the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) polit bureau member, said that the party had nothing against talking to the Congress or the Samajwadi Party. "It is they who left us," he said. The Samajwadi Party, on its part, though hurt by the criticism directed at it by CPI(M) leaders in the wake of the presidential nomination, said that it could "consider coming back" but that it would not take the initiative in the matter. "We will support any candidate whom the Opposition parties sponsor. But we will not take the initiative," said Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh. He said that though the Samajwadi Party had been treated shabbily by the Left on many occasions, "for the sake of Opposition unity" the party would support their candidate.

The problem, however, lies in finding a candidate to fight a losing battle. As Amar Singh put it, "they will have to look for another Lakshmi Sahgal". There are no names doing the rounds; not even that of Krishan Kant because he certainly will not agree to suffer the ignominy of a defeat.

Confusion prevails in the Congress party. Although party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy declared bravely that there would "certainly be a contest," he did not offer any name. "We will arrive at a decision after consultations with other secular parties. The candidate will be an appropriate one," he said in reply to a question whether the Opposition candidate will be the choice of the Congress.

In fact, the Opposition remains clueless about its next move. With so much bitterness having been generated between the Left and the Samajwadi Party in the wake of presidential election, it would be interesting to see whether they would kiss and make up. Similarly, it would be interesting to watch the course that the Congress(I) will take in order to make peace with the Left because the party had bolted out of the Opposition camp at the eleventh hour to support A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. If nothing else, the vice-presidential election will at least provide a lesson in political jugglery.

The post falls vacant on August 20, and the election process should get over by August 12. The notification for the election has been issued by the Election Commission.

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