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The measure of their words

What was it that stopped BJP from electing Advani before, if he was a better choice for the PM, asks Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2006 06:27 IST

The controversy over who will be the BJP’s nominee for Prime Minister is a major talking point in political circles because it has its genesis in the power politics of the Sangh parivar.

The timing of the controversy could well be a deliberate move, with the BJP wanting to divert attention from its stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Its aggressive opposition to the agreement may lead to people clubbing the BJP’s position with that of the Left.

But whatever the reason, the controversy generated was avoidable — this was felt both by leader of the Opposition LK Advani and his colleagues after the interview was telecast. Rajnath Singh described the TV channel’s ‘press release’ as one with “malicious intent”, without fully clarifying why Advani or his supporters did not contradict the news item when it was flashed on the wires last Sunday.

Or why they chose to circulate the full text to the media, 48 hours later, to prove that Advani never said what had been attributed to him. So, was the initial silence strategic?

In politics, nuances are as important as what appears in black and white. It is important to read between the lines to realistically gauge why a particular leader chooses to talk on a particular subject and when he says something, does he mean what he has stated or whether he is implying something else.

This is more so in the case of a politically shrewd and astute leader like Advani who does not make any statement without purpose. Advani knows what he is talking about and also carefully chooses his timing to say it.

One particular answer by Advani in response to a question on Rajnath Singh’s chances of becoming the Prime Minister — after his renomination for a three-year term — needs to be fully analysed. Advani said, “That is a question for the party and the people to decide. In fact, when Vajpayeeji became Prime Minister, I was party president. I felt that it would be appropriate if I announce his name as the party’s PM-in-waiting’’.

Obviously, the implication of the reply was that now Rajnath Singh is the president, he should do the same and announce Advani’s name. In fact, the message which emerged clearly from Advani’s interview was that both he and Vajpayee were supreme leaders and the rest were way below them.

His remarks on Jinnah in Pakistan were fully justified and the party was unable to capitalise on the opportunity he had created. He had managed to correct the perception that he is “anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam’’.

In response to another question on whether or not he himself was PM-candidate, Advani put forward his claim indirectly by referring to the British tradition of having the leader of the Opposition as the PM-in-waiting.

In Britain, the leader of Opposition is indeed the shadow PM. But as far as India is concerned, the British example does not hold good. For instance, barring Vajpayee, no leader who rose to become Prime Minister was leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. YB Chavan and CM Stephens had to settle for lesser positions. Sonia Gandhi, who could have become PM, didn’t take up the position in 2004.

While Sonia had renounced the most powerful position when it was hers on a platter, the BJP leaders’ obsession with becoming PM was on full display, even when there is no election to Parliament in the offing.

No party or its leaders should give an impression that they are hungry for power. People do not like this.

In the BJP’s case, there are innumerable occasions when a person who was projected for a particular post has been subsequently replaced and never brought back to the same position post-elections.

In 1993, Madan Lal Khurana was projected as the CM. He resigned to express solidarity with Advani after the 1996 hawala scandal. But he was not reinstated when the crisis was over even  though he was the people’s choice.

Advani wanted to send the message that he was going to be the party’s choice and, therefore, could not be written off. He timed it just a few days ahead of the BJP’s Lucknow conclave.

Rajnath queered the pitch by granting an interview to another TV channel. However, instead of naming only Advani, he also named Vajpayee for PM. He himself opted out of the race.

In fact, Rajnath played by political instinct by pitching the big two against each other. While Rajnath’s comments may be viewed as favouring Advani, they may even be interpreted to mean that the party will decide on the PM-candidate at an appropriate time.

Another signal that Rajnath has tried to convey, prior to the upcoming UP polls, is that his party cannot be written off. None of the NDA allies have reacted to Advani and Rajnath’s interviews as they know that it is all about the BJP’s internal power struggle, and as such, the interviews were exercises in ‘self-assertion’.

In order to come to power, the BJP will have to improve its tally from its current 130-odd members to much more. There is no possibility of a mid-term poll, so all this talk of who will be the PM-candidate is too premature. It is like playing the shehnai before the wedding date has been finalised.

Some feel that Advani would make a better PM than Vajpayee as he’s the one who took the party to the top. So, what prevented the BJP from electing Advani instead of Vajpayee earlier? It was the latter’s acceptability among allies that tilted the scales in his favour.

But in the game which is being played through interviews, all others are also being kept out. The message to the RSS is that the big two are indispensable. In the fierce power play within the Sangh parivar, the terms and conditions are being laid down before the bugle has sounded for electoral battle. Between us.

Email Pankaj Vohra: pvohra@hindustantimes.com