Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, February 2, 2009

THERE are some traits in Lal Kishen Advani that never cease to both amaze and amuse. One, he never gives up trying. Two, he never stops wringing his hands, in public, and I assume even in private. He is seen indulging a lot in the latter these days and there is much speculation about the reasons.

People close to him tell me it has less to do with anxieties over his own future and more with that of the party that he represents. At 82, he is making his first and presumably last bid for prime ministership.

But as one, who along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, built the BJP into the political force it is today in less than two decades, he has reasons to be worried about the calibre of the leadership that will carry the party’s flag in the coming years. A decade ago, in Arun Jaitley, Venkiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj and others, the BJP had, to borrow a sporting phrase, the best bench strength. When they christened themselves ‘ BJP’s Gen- Next’, none grudged it. But 10 years have gone by and with nothing to show except backroom manipulations, Gen- Next is now mocked at by party cadres as GenExtinct.

They have also come under Advani’s scanner. It is Advani’s belief that to be true leaders, they have to gain the mandate of not just the support staff at 11 Ashoka Road, the party HQ, but also that of the public. For 10 years, either as ministers ( in the NDA) or as office bearers, they controlled the levers of power, built up a coterie and sidelined committed grassroots workers. That their power is not commensurate with their limited mandate is evident from the fact that while they shun popular elections, they still wield the clout to decide who will be a chief minister, minister, MP or MLA. Contrast them with the likes of Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi, BS Yeddyurappa, MM Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Ananth Kumar and others who are what they are because of what they have done.

Now opposition is brewing within the party and Advani has told these pillars of Ashoka Road that if they want to wield power, they will have to earn it. In the past, these leaders shied away from contesting polls on the pretext that their services were needed by the party. Yet, they found nothing wrong in switching their services to the government when the BJP won, as in 1998 and a year later. If the NDA gets the numbers to form the government after May — that’s a BIG IF — they will be looking forward to returning to the cabinet once again, courtesy the backdoor entry into Parliament via the Rajya Sabha. But Advani has told the GenNext which claims to engineer victory for others that they should prove their ability to win elections themselves. By compelling them to fight the elections, Advani has made it clear that winning is a prerequisite for ministership.

It will also help the party decide on the post- Advani line- up. He has been telling his close aides of an incident in 1998 after both Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh lost the Lok Sabha polls.
Despite the defeats, Vajpayee forwarded Jaswant’s name to President K. R. Narayanan for the finance ministry.

There was mayhem in the party and from distant Nagpur, the RSS chief, K. Sudarshan — who had no love lost for the prime minister — flew into Delhi and drove straight to Race Course Road to force Vajpayee to withdraw the nomination. The RSS seems to be in a similar mood now and the GenNext will have to take leave of the locker room and enter the ring. The good news is: if they contest, Modi will handle their campaigns. If they don’t they are likely to be condemned as GenEx.

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