As the presidential race exposes its frailties, the alliance now resembles a railway platform, says Ashok Malik
WHEN THE countdown to the presidential race began, the BJP hoped for a division in the UPA ranks and a situation where the Congress and the government would end up being weaker after the battle for Rashtrapati Bhavan. In a sense, it turned out as hoped. The Trinamool Congress’ relationship with the Congress has worsened considerably. That apart, the departure of Pranab Mukherjee will leave the UPA government without its principal trouble-shooter.
Nevertheless, snatching defeat from the jaws of smug satisfaction, the BJP has converted the election into an all-purpose fiasco. The NDA is now divided; the biggest non- BJP party is threatening to walk out. Two allies, the JD(U) in Bihar and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, have announced their support for Pranab.
The BJP itself has lurched from one candidate to the next, playing second fiddle to Mamata when it came to APJ Abdul Kalam and to Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik on the name of PA Sangma. To top it all, even BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s rebellious and embittered strongman in Karnataka, declared his preference for Pranab. If that were not enough, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar remarked that Narendra Modi was not suitable for becoming the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate.
The NDA allies took the bull by the horns and forced the BJP to confront larger questions
As is apparent, the issue is not Pranab. The issue is the exasperation of NDA allies as well as regional leaders in the BJP with the party brass in New Delhi and their inability to get 11 Ashoka Road in order. The jockeying for 2014, or whenever the next general election takes place, is afoot, and has caught some in the BJP on the wrong foot. In the process, the NDA has begun to resemble a railway platform.
As Devesh Chandra Thakur of the JD(U) put it, “Everybody is entitled to an opinion. The Shiv Sena has said it will support Pranab. In the last election, in the name of electing a fellow Maharashtrian, they voted for Pratibha Patil. But despite this, they stayed in the NDA. There are certain issues on which every party is free to have its own independent thinking.”
WHILE THE Modi versus Nitish issue is a broader one and represents a dilemma for the BJP — does it choose a candidate for the party or for the alliance? — the presidential election mess can primarily be blamed on the party’s pensioners. The allies as well as sections of the BJP were put off by the insistence of NDA chair LK Advani on a contest even if only for the heck of it. As a senior Akali Dal MP put it, “If you don’t have a serious candidate and can’t put up a fight, what is the purpose of a token contest?”
Yet Advani dug in his heels. Like Murli Manohar Joshi, he faces the prospect of being refused a ticket by the BJP in 2014 — the RSS has said as much — but is taking the news of imminent retirement very badly. Advani encouraged Jaswant Singh to campaign for the vice-presidency, when few — whether in the party or outside — took this seriously. A new entrant to the group was Subramanian Swamy, Janata Party president and now a member of the NDA, who took credit for Kalam’s candidacy just before it failed to materialise.
All of these people — especially Swamy, who has campaigned determinedly against the UPA regime in recent months, using the courts adroitly — have their role in the backroom politics of the capital. Their efficacy in electoral politics, however, is close to zero.
For the JD(U), the episode also presented an opportunity to flex its muscles. “Nitish Kumar is very serious about walking out of the NDA if Modi is made prime ministerial candidate,” a senior BJP MP said, “aside from the minority vote, there is a problem of personal chemistry.”
Nitish doesn’t want to leave the alliance, but at a pinch could go it alone in Bihar and attempt to get the remaining Muslim and other votes from Laloo Yadav by presenting himself as a Bihar icon free of the BJP. It would be quite a gamble though, and the chief minister would probably prefer it if the BJP chose another leader.
In the BJP itself, there is understandable disquiet at the manner in which a smaller ally is dictating terms. Modi is the party’s most charismatic leader and the idea that he must be in permanent exile from national politics due to NDA exigencies does exercise the party rank and file. However, in demanding the BJP make its choice of leader clear well before the election — and thereby define its electoral appeal, which will be both represented and reinforced by the individual it chooses — Nitish is not being unreasonable.
Even so, these are matters the BJP is not seriously debating because its old guard is too busy following adventurist approaches. This week, as the interminable NDA meetings to decide on Kalam or Sangma or nobody continued, the allies took the bull by the horns and forced the BJP to confront larger questions.
In the end, the fact that the BJP had no presidential candidate of its own was telling of its overall confusion since 2004. It is uncertain about its policy options, its leadership options, its whole charter and positioning. It tried to pass off the absence of a choice as a choice. This won’t work in 2012; it probably won’t work in 2014 either.
With inputs from Brijesh Pandey
Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka.