The genial doctor styled as the BJP’s answer to Sheila Dikshit appears keen to make up for lost time. Harsh Vardhan, named the saffron party’s CM candidate for Delhi late last month — only six weeks before the assembly polls — gets by with four hours of sleep nowadays and often has a dozen meetings by mid-afternoon.
“Sleep is never an issue,” Vardhan told HT in a chat on the lawns of his Khan Market office, which was buzzing with more than 40 workers oiling the wheels of his hectic campaign. After all, he said, he used to get only a little more sleep even before he took on his new role.
But the ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist can no longer see patients and he’s unable to respond to every phone call he gets.
It’s clear he has been chosen for his industriousness and clean image, but the party’s first list of candidates for the assembly election, released last week, had little of Vardhan’s imprint, raising questions about who is really calling the shots.
Though he enjoys the support of many who see him as honest and soft spoken, many workers feel he is not very assertive and will be handicapped by a paucity of close aides.
“When meetings on ticket distribution were held, he had left everything to the national high command and didn’t interfere in the selection, which was headed by election in-charge Nitin Gadkari,” said a party source.
But it helps that the 58-year-old has the solid backing of the party’s national top brass and that senior leader Arun Jaitley has constituted a core team of three members to structure the campaign and portray him as the “honest choice”, a message that appeared on hoardings almost overnight after Vardhan was chosen.
Sources said Ajay Singh, who had earlier worked with national leaders such as Pramod Mahajan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is one of the founder directors of the airline SpiceJet, is one of the members of the core team.
The others are former journalist Nalin Kohli and Ashish Sood, who is a councillor and heads the BJP state publicity campaign.
The BJP figures that Vardhan, who belongs to the trader community, has considerable appeal for the middle-class. He is known for his hands-on style of functioning and has always been considered approachable, even during his stint as the health minister (1993-98).
During that period, he had spearheaded the polio eradication programme in Delhi, which was later replicated all over India.
For a party with a reputation for infighting, it’s useful to have a candidate who manages to survive controversy. In 1996, when he was the health minister, a woman was raped inside his official bungalow by a domestic help.
The issue was played up massively by the opposition and had become a topic of debate in the Delhi assembly as well. But Vardhan emerged unscathed.
So when he dismissed talk of any rift with Vijay Goel, the BJP state president seen as having been keen on the CM candidacy, it was easy to believe he has managed to avoid a confrontation.
“There has never been any infighting within the party or any clash with the state president. I believe in giving my opinion but at the end of the day decisions are taken jointly and I prefer that,” he said.
Vardhan is very vocal about women’s security, inflation and corruption. “Every day we hear of minors working as domestic helps being sexually assaulted but no one is doing anything about it. Why don’t we create a government training cell where they can be trained and will be available as per people’s requirement?” he asked.
While wife Nutan is focused on her role as a homemaker, sons Mayank Bharat and Sachin, who rarely took interest in his political activities in the past, are pitching in because they are concerned at his workload. To make best use of his time, they accompany him as he crisscrosses the city, discussing campaign details in his car.
By 4pm, Vardhan, who has been up for 12 hours, has finished four interviews (including the one with HT) and 10 meetings. Now he’s off to meet national BJP leaders, who stand squarely behind him in his battle with the formidable three-time CM Dikshit and AAP party challenger Arvind Kejriwal.