Of masks and mascots

Print edition : July 04, 2003

An intense tussle is on within the Bharatiya Janata party on the strategy to be adopted for the next elections, and the chintan baithak at Vasai will decide who, the hardliners or the moderates, will have the upper hand.

in New Delhi

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee being felicitated by his deputy L.K Advani at a function after he completed his three-nation tour.-

The Statesman

Denying the possibility that Advani would replace Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate , the editorial said: "Vajpayee and Advani are simply two sides of the same coin, and twisting each sentence uttered to represent a leadership feud between them is pointless and naive. They have spent the last half a century as comrades in arms without a single public spat or disagreement. Together they created the BJP and brought it to its current position, they are not ready to wreck all that now. It is the second rung characters around them who create a leadership crisis. With Vajpayee's advancing age and not-so-stable health, the BJP does need an alternative in the wings. There is only [one] man for the job - Advani. But because of Advani's image the BJP is not sure how the allies or the electorate at large will react to a change. Hence the occasional kite-flying indulged in by those around the big two. But so far the reaction has ensured a return to square one. Advani was going to be in charge of the BJP's poll campaign in the next election, just as he has been in previous ones, much before Venkaiah Naidu made his comments. And everyone knew that Vajpayee would eventually be projected as the prime ministerial candidate because he is the acceptable face of coalition politics; the same position after much ado about nothing."

Although the BJP reaffirmed its faith in Vajpayee's leadership in the wake of the controversy over party president M. Venkaiah Naidu's remark that Vajpayee would be projected as Vikas Purush (development man) and Advani as Loh Purush (iron man) in the run-up to the elections, it appeared to share the editorial's mild rebuke of Vajpayee and belief that Advani will continue to share the leadership mantle, thereby suggesting that there was nothing inherently wrong in Venkaiah Naidu's "twin mascots" strategy.

The editorial added: "Vajpayee is the poet with a conscience who appeals to the masses when he cries at the Babri Masjid demolition or when he visits refugee camps in Gujarat after the riots. But do not be fooled by the tears because he can as easily turn them to his advantage as he did at the Goa party convention. The drama is enacted by peripheral characters who go scurrying between the two leaders trying to advance their own agendas and Advani and Vajpayee are left in exactly the same positions as they have always been - twin heads of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Both have their own unique place in the party, and the BJP cannot do without either."

The party's endorsement of the editorial comes close on the heels of its dismissal of the controversy as a creation of the media. Venkaiah Naidu's remarks, expressed when Vajpayee was away on a foreign tour, forced the Prime Minister to say at a function organised to felicitate him on the "successful" tour he had undertaken, that the party could emerge victorious in the parliamentary elections under Advani's leadership.

While the party chose to interpret Vajpayee's off-the-cuff remark as his expression of trust in his deputy, it embarrassed party leaders, including Venkaiah Naidu, who hastened to repose faith in the leadership of Vajpayee. Venkaiah Naidu's attempt to make amends, however, proved belated, as Vajpayee, even while advising him to ignore the stories in the media on the leadership issue, underlined the need for trust between the two leaders, suggesting that its lack, rather than the media reports, had given rise to the controversy. The controversy refused to die down, despite the party's attempts to declare it a closed chapter.

Advani suggested that a section of the media had blown out of proportion the remarks made by Venkaiah Naidu and Vajpayee. Too embarrassed to state his views immediately, he chose the occasion of his trip to Washington to do so. He told a press conference in Washington that Vajpayee would continue to lead the country as Prime Minister for many more years to come, thus implying that he would keep under control his (or his loyalists') ambitions as long as Vajpayee was around.

Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi added his bit to the controversy. He first made an unsolicited declaration of the Union Cabinet's faith in the leadership of Vajpayee during a Cabinet meeting, although there was no provocation for it by way of an expression of doubt over his leadership within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He then questioned Venkaiah Naidu's description of Vajpayee as Vikas Purush. Joshi pointed out that none of the party's official fora had discussed the proposal, and it was unfair to describe Vajpayee only as a man of development, ignoring his achievements in other fields.

Venkaiah Naidu, who refused to join issue with Joshi, indirectly rebuked him by holding that no leader could discuss the issue in public after the party had declared it a closed chapter. Howsoever Venkaiah Naidu wished that the controversy would die down without causing him further discomfiture, the episode raised serious questions within the party about his motives in proposing the twin-mascot strategy.

The BJP president first stated that he floated the proposal after a meeting of State party presidents in Hyderabad had endorsed it on May 31. But many State party presidents told the media that the issue had not been raised at that meeting, let alone the fact that the meeting had no power to authorise the party president to take such a crucial decision without any discussion, several months ahead of the elections.

BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu.-

The party released a 25-point programme, "Agenda-Action Plan, Mission 2004", which it claimed had been prescribed at the Hyderabad meeting. The programme, which details the contents of the party's poll strategy in terms of the issues to project and the way to confront the campaign of its adversaries, has nothing to say on the leadership issue. However, the party's press release, issued subsequently over the outcome of the meeting, had this to say: "The party has also decided to project Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Vikas Purush by highlighting the achievements and development works during his prime ministership. At the same time the party will also keep its own Iron Man L.K. Advani in the limelight to maintain a proper balance between development and determination."

Inherent in this decision is an admission that Vajpayee lacked determination. That the party has so far not withdrawn from the website or corrected this part of the press release, despite the Prime Minister's reaction to it, is significant. It only underlines the Venkaiah Naidu-Advani camp's obsession to project Advani alongside Vajpayee.

Moreover, the twin mascots episode has occurred at a time when the Opposition parties have mounted a fresh offensive against the continuance of Advani in the Union Ministry. Following the filing of supplemental charge-sheets by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against Advani and Joshi in the Babri Masjid demolition case, a few erstwhile kar sevaks, also facing charges of complicity in the crime, have admitted to the media that they pulled down the Babri Masjid at Advani's exhortations. While their admission may have little legal merit at this stage, the Congress(I) and the Left parties have raised serious questions about the ethics of the continuance of Advani and Joshi as Union Ministers and demanded their resignation to facilitate their impartial trial. The Advani camp obviously smells an opportunity in this demand to create a climate for the return of Advani to the party as its president in place of Venkaiah Naidu.

Venkaiah Naidu, however, has ridiculed the demand for Advani's resignation and questioned the locus standi of the kar sevaks' statement. Observers feel that if Advani does accept the challenge and returns to the party as its president before the elections, it could well create a parallel power centre. The twin-mascots strategy, in that event, would be accepted without any resistance from any quarter, it is felt.

The leadership issue also casts a shadow on the proceedings of the chintan-baitak, a brain-storming session the party plans to hold at Vasai, a suburb of Mumbai, from June 17 to 20.

The informal meeting of select leaders of the party, and the rest of the Sangh Parivar, is being held after a gap of eight years. The last such meeting, held in 1995, at Virar near Mumbai, paved the way for the party to come out of its political isolation and search for coalition partners. The then political situation forced the party to conclude that the BJP's dream of a majority at the Centre would prove elusive and that it would have to work for a coalition government if it sought power. This suggested that the party dilute its own agenda or subordinate that to that of the coalition, in order to expand its electoral reach. Although the party had its own manifesto in 1996 and 1998, it succumbed to political expediency, and adopted the National Agenda for Governance, the coalition's manifesto in the 1999 general elections.

Ever since it first came to power at the Centre in 1998, the BJP had planned to hold such a session again to discuss the changed political situation. But the compulsions of electoral politics did not really force the party to rethink its coalition strategy to stay in power;, also, the necessity to hold such a session had not arisen earlier. However, with its allies now barely in a position to assert their independence, the BJP is under considerable pressure from within to revive its divisive agenda and declare its own manifesto. With Venkaiah Naidu declaring a target of 300 Lok Sabha seats for the BJP alone, the pressure to contest the elections alone is tremendous within the party, and this has led to the questioning of the wisdom of abandoning the party manifesto for the sake of the coalition.

The leadership controversy may have been settled for the present, but the party is apparently divided on the pursuit of the agenda for the elections. The Vajpayee camp probably thinks that the party is not yet ready to go it alone, and would require the allies to return to power.

Vajpayee's appeal - made on the occasion of felicitating the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswati, in New Delhi to mark the golden jubilee of his ascension to the position of acharya - to keep the Ayodhya issue out of politics, is thus an indication of how he intends to keep a distance from the hardline elements within the Sangh Parivar who have demanded legislation, rather than negotiation or litigation, to settle the dispute. The Advani camp, on the contrary, assumes that the BJP's allies do not matter in the party's pursuit of an absolute majority in Parliament, if the party is not apologetic about following its own agenda. The Vasai session will determine which of these dominates the party's thinking.

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