In a bid to oust chief minister Sheila Dikshit, who has been in office for the past 15 years, and negate the challenge from the Aam Admi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put its bet on 58-year-old Harsh Vardhan just five weeks before Delhi goes to polls.
Announcing him as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for Delhi on Wednesday, the BJP finally took the risk it avoided in the 2008 elections, fearing an internal sabotage.
The party’s parliamentary board met on Wednesday to formally declare Vardhan's name, presenting him as the "cleanest face" to lead the next government in Delhi. It showcased the ENT specialist’s past record as health minister who started a campaign against polio between 1993 and 1998, recalling his "earnestness" in public service, which won him honours.
Dikshit, however, refused to comment on Vardhan’s candidature even as other Congress leaders dismissed his ability to mount a challenge in the polls. Some of them even recalled that Harshvardhan had earlier praised Dikshit and now he is pitted against her.
AAP chief Arvind Kerjriwal called Vardhan as the "Manmohan Singh of the BJP" who was incapable of stemming the "rot" in Delhi's governance.
A confident Vardhan, however, said: "We will help the people of Delhi get rid of Congress misgovernance first, and then ensure change at the national level in the Lok Sabha polls."
What clearly swung in favour of Vardhan was a full endorsement from Narendra Modi, who is the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and an overwhelming RSS support, the parent body of the BJP that forced Delhi BJP chief Vijay Goel to end his brief protest against Vardhan.
Like Goel, Vardhan belongs to the Vaish community, but is considered more acceptable to the Capital's middle class, which makes a big section of the voters.
Vardhan's name was announced by BJP president Rajnath Singh once it was clear that behind-the-scene parleys ensured that Goel, who was a strong contender himself, came around to accept the former’s candidature and pledged to work with him to ensure success in the polls.
Singh laced his announcement (of Vardhan as CM candidate) with praises for Goel for having worked "hard" and having assured the top party brass to work with the CM candidate for BJP's victory in Delhi. Singh also made it a point to say that Modi, who was conspicuous with his absence, too endorsed Vardhan's candidature.
So did senior BJP patriarch LK Advani, who also lauded Goel's leadership besides that of Vardhan and veteran leader VK Malhotra, who was once the Punjabi face of the BJP along with former chief minister Madan Lal Khurana.
Also present on the occasion were senior leaders Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitely, MM Joshi and Nitin Gadkari, in-charge of Delhi. Gadkari was instrumental in ensuring that Vardhan was declared the chief ministerial candidate without any further delay.
Gadkari cited undisclosed surveys by his teams that showed Goel was unable to inspire confidence among Delhi voters in the face of a serious challenge from the AAP, which was making inroads into the BJP's traditional vote banks in many areas.
Goel's bid to showcase surveys that showed him on a par with Dikshit and Kejriwal as a poor second failed to convince the top leaders. On Sunday, Goel sought an audience with the BJP parliamentary board members who were attending a central election committee meeting. His alleged threats to revolt failed to move them, but ‘forced’ to defer a decision on Vardhan till Wednesday.
Some party leaders did wonder whether the party has already lost precious time and momentum by not announcing the chief ministerial candidate. Party insiders said the parliamentary board had also discussed the names of other leaders who had been active in Delhi’s politics for a long time, but ultimately decided to concentrate on just one person and avoid any confusion.
The board's view was that without a credible name leading the party in the elections, the BJP is losing the edge. Goel, in their view, did not fit the bill.