The BJP brings in M. Venkaiah Naidu as party president ahead of a round of further organisational changes, in the aftermath of electoral setbacks and in preparation for battles to come.
WHEN Lal Kishen Advani met mediapersons in Panaji at the time of the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive meeting in April 2002 and announced that Ministers in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government would be sent for party work in order to rejuvenate the party, it was news to BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy who was seated next to him. For, the issue had not been discussed in the highest party forum. Krishnamurthy would say that those who wanted to quit their ministerial posts and return to party work could be suitably accommodated in the organisation, but he was obviously unaware that his position as party chief itself would be the target of a sustained campaign. For nearly two months after the Goa conclave, no apparent steps were taken to give effect to Advani's strategy. The first indication of the blueprint came when the Prime Minister decided to make sweeping changes in the party and the government. In Goa, Advani advised the party not to be apologetic about its core ideology even while subscribing to the National Agenda for Governance (NAG), which requires that contentious issues be avoided.
Handing over the party leadership to the new generation and giving a fillip to its ideology even while remaining a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were the two key aspects of the new strategy. The strategy came in the background of a series of electoral reverses that the BJP faced in the States.
The major problem that the BJP encountered was that it had not been able to keep the party-government relationship on an even keel. The electoral setbacks were invariably attributed to the poor leadership qualities of the party president of the day. This was the case during the tenure of Kushabhau Thakre between 1998 and 2000 and that of Jana Krishnamurthy since March 2001. Vajpayee's experiment with Bangaru Laxman as party president from August 2000 was aborted following the Tehelka scandal and Laxman's subsequent exit. Leaders of the government never accepted any responsibility for the party's electoral reverses.
Krishnamurthy himself could not apparently grasp the political significance of the Goa meet as neither Vajpayee nor Advani broached the issue of replacing him with a younger leader. He did not seriously think that the BJP could find his age a disadvantage in running the party and was under the impression that he would be allowed to complete his term, which should have ended in mid-2003. In fact, the factors of age and generation gap were cited only to hide the real reasons for the electoral setbacks.
Thus, when Vajpayee formally suggested to him to join the Cabinet and pave the way for a younger person to head the party, Krishnamurthy had already been projected in the media as being a major hurdle in the Prime Minister's efforts to refurbish the image of the party and the government. Hurt and humiliated, Krishnamurthy consented to Vajpayee's suggestion. He had no other option. He was under intense pressure from his party colleagues to join the Cabinet; they told him that his refusal would embarrass the Prime Minister.
Having forced Krishnamurthy to relent, the Prime Minister's think-tank, comprising Advani, George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan, discussed the key aspects of the changes in the party and the government. Kushabhau Thakre is said to have advised the Vajpayee-Advani duo not to choose Krishnamurthy's successor in a hurry. He obviously had in mind his own experience - in 2000 his desire for another term as party president was not entertained and his successor Bangaru Laxman had to quit within six months of assuming office.
Vajpayee and Advani considered four names for the post of party president - M. Venkaiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh. Ironically, all the four had lost one election or the other in the recent past. Finally, Venkaiah Naidu was chosen through a process of elimination. Vajpayee was aware of Pramod Mahajan's usefulness in running a coalition government; and he found Sushma Swaraj too independent to be entrusted with the party post although she enjoys the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) backing.
DOES Venkaiah Naidu have the qualities required of a party president? As the party's official spokesperson for a number of years before joining the government, he is media savvy. His organisational abilities too are in no doubt. However, he would be constrained by the same kind of disadvantage that his predecessors had: with senior leaders such as Vajpayee and Advani being part of the government, he would be entirely dependent on them in the matter of evolving strategies and policies. This could affect his functioning. It was his loyalty to both Vajpayee and Advani that helped him win the coveted post and this loyalty has to be demonstrated again and again for his survival at the helm.
Arun Jaitley is another leader who has had to quit the Cabinet post to become the party's general secretary and chief spokesperson. Jaitley was not happy about leaving the government, and it was Venkaiah Naidu who convinced him. The leadership believes that it could shore up the party's image with Jaitley as its spokesperson. Jaitley's communication skills will help the party project its view on major issues more consistently and effectively, goes the thinking.
Venkaiah Naidu's elevation is accompanied by similar changes in the State units. The appointment of Vinay Katiyar as the Uttar Pradesh unit chief shows that the party no longer fights shy of promoting those who gave it the image of being a militant Hindu party. Uma Bharati's name was considered for the post of president in Madhya Pradesh but the Union Sports Minister rejected the suggestion, wary as she is of the realities of Madhya Pradesh politics.
Vajpayee had claimed that many BJP Ministers were keen to take up party work, but such a trend was not evident except in the case of Venkaiah Naidu. In the mid-1960s, the Congress implemented the Kamaraj Plan to redeploy senior Ministers for party work. Vajpayee's plan was different in that he wanted competent and young Ministers to take up party work and those who failed to deliver in the party and elsewhere to take up assignments in the government. The underlying assumption is that what matters electorally is the party's image and not the government's performance.
The key changes made indicate that the leadership has made the old guard the scapegoats for the recent electoral debacles in the northern States. And the elevation of Advani as Deputy Prime Minister is a clear pointer to the fact that the Advani camp has taken over the party apparatus. The suggestion to make Advani Deputy Prime Minister might have come from Fernandes but the proposal was made when the Prime Minister was in the midst of discussions on changes in the Cabinet and the party. The idea was to stun the Prime Minister who found it too embarrassing to reject it. His suggestion to evolve a consensus within the NDA only helped to hasten the decision. An NDA meeting was not convened to discuss the proposal; only the individual constituents expressed their support to the idea, even though there were voices of dissent from a few parties.
Advani loyalists had no patience for a consensus to emerge. They clearly saw this as an opportunity to compare Advani with India's first Home Minister, Sardar Patel, who also had the distinction of being the first Deputy Prime Minister of the country.
The question is: had the Prime Minister thought of this proposal earlier - as Advani claimed after he was designated Deputy Prime Minister - what prevented him from seeking a consensus on this within the NDA earlier? Any Prime Minister would be uncomfortable with the idea of having a Deputy Prime Minister because that would mean another power centre within the government.
Advani's explanation as to why this idea appealed to the Prime Minister was not convincing. According to him, the Prime Minister saw in the idea an opportunity to put an end to the frequent talk of differences between them. Advani also claimed, rather unconvincingly, that his designation could be compared only to that of Patel and not to the five Deputy Prime Ministers that the country had after him. The implication was that the Prime Minister did so out of choice, and not out of compulsion. But unlike in the case of Sardar Patel who became Deputy Prime Minister when the government was first formed, Vajpayee appointed a Deputy Prime Minister midway through the government's tenure, which indicates that he was under compulsion to do so.
Behind the elevation of Advani lies an acute feeling of insecurity in Advani and his followers. As the country finds itself in a coalition era, Vajpayee's successor cannot hope to acquire automatically the kind of charisma and acceptance that Vajpayee has.
Although the entire BJP and the government seek to debunk the article in Time, which questioned Vajpayee's physical fitness to lead the nation, party leaders have no answer to the question whether Advani's elevation vindicated the article's contention. In this context, the decision to make Advani Deputy Prime Minister could only be seen as a move to settle the question of succession once for all. The BJP's allies have no choice but to fall in line and that is the message that the BJP wants to convey to them. Advani's statement that he would like Vajpayee to lead the party and the coalition at the time of the next elections appears to be based on the calculation that Vajpayee's charisma would get votes for the BJP.
The Advani era has now begun. It remains to be seen whether it marks the beginning of the end of the Vajpayee era.
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