The vice-presidential stakes

Print edition : August 03, 2002

IN 1952, in the first ever Assembly elections held in the country after Independence, the Jan Sangh won eight seats in Rajasthan. Seven of the MLAs left the organisation after the abolition of the zamindaari system. The only member who remained with the party was a 29-year-old Rajput, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Shekhawat, who had resigned from the Police Department to enter politics, won every Assembly election that was held in Rajasthan, except once when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha. He eventually came to be regarded as a major figure of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Rajasthan; he was instrumental not only in setting up the party there but also in helping it take root. He is finally rewarded by being chosen to contest for the post of the Vice-President of India.

Few would doubt Shekhawat's organisational skills or question his administrative acumen. He has been the Chief Minister of Rajasthan thrice, but no major controversy has surrounded him. His rapport with people outside the BJP also came in handy and there was little in his persona, except for his hardcore Hindutva ideology, to which the allies of his party could object to. In any case, the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, if their reaction ( or the lack of it) to the appointment of L.K. Advani as Deputy Prime Minister is any indication, seem to have reconciled to hardliners in the BJP occupying key positions in the government. Despite the fact that there was not even a semblance of consultation with any of the alliance partners, there was not even a murmur of protest from any of them once his name was declared by the NDA. Even those outside the NDA fold, like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, promptly pledged their support for Shekhawat after they were formally consulted by the BJP. It was a neat act by the BJP. Everything fell into place as per the script.

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.-

The Opposition, in contrast, was left looking around for a suitable candidate, having resolved that "there will be a contest". Even though the BJP had declared its intent to have its nominee elected Vice-President, for the sake of the record, the Prime Minister consulted the Leader of the Opposition and Congress (I) president Sonia Gandhi and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav regarding Shekhawat. Both of them rejected the proposal. Even as Shekhawat was filing his nomination papers with 21 proposers and 22 seconders on July 18, the Left and the S.P. were toying with the idea of putting up Rabi Ray. But he was not acceptable to the Congress(I). The Congress came up with the name of Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Lok Sabha member and a party a veteran from Maharashtra. Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party and Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal accepted Shinde's candidature. Shinde, a Dalit, who is also on the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Parliamentarians' Forum, was expected to wean away the votes of some Dalit MPs of the NDA. But the composition of the electoral college for the vice-presidential election is such that the NDA candidate's victory is a foregone conclusion. The electoral college comprises members of both Houses of Parliament, and the NDA has 85 members more than the Opposition. This makes the Opposition's fight effectively a symbolic one. But still, by fielding a joint candidate, the Opposition, even though belatedly, sent out a message that when it comes to countering hardline-Hindutva votaries, the entire Opposition, despite its differences, was still together.

The entire process has served to expose the BJP's allies as never before. Unlike the presidential election, or the election of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, in this case, the allies did not have even the fig leaf of "consensus". They chose to support Shekhawat notwithstanding his being an unabashed votary of Hindutva or having made statements to the effect that if the Rajasthan government continued with its present policies, a " Gujarat-like" carnage would be witnessed in Rajasthan too. Although the office of the Vice-President is a ceremonial one in a functional democracy like India, the fact remains that the BJP has succeeded in putting yet another Hindutva hardliner in one of the top constitutional posts.

It was important for the BJP to capture the post of Vice-President because he is the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha. It was precisely because of this that the allies should have opposed the BJP's choice. Having a friendly presiding officer in the Rajya Sabha means that the BJP would be able to have its way in the Upper House as well. In the recent past, just because the Rajya Sabha, where the non-NDA parties are in a majority, had a non-BJP presiding officer, the government faced some embarrassing moments. One such was when it had to do a volte-face and support a censure motion against itself on Gujarat. On another occasion, the defeat of the Bill to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance in the Rajya Sabha put the BJP in an awkward situation. In order to get it passed, the government had to convene a joint sitting of Parliament.

The Rajya Sabha, with a non-BJP presiding officer, had indeed served to check the NDA government to a great extent. Now, with even this office going to a hardliner, the BJP-led NDA government can only become all the more unbridled.

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