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Hurdles in Advani's Prime Ministerial Path
|by Amulya Ganguli|
L.K. Advani's website proclaims that he puts the nation first, the party second and "self last". For the present, however, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate is probably concerned more about himself than about the first two.
There are several reasons for the current uncertainty about his prospects, at least two of which are sudden, unexpected developments. One of them is the decision of the party veteran, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, to enter the electoral ring.
Having been the country's vice-president and chief minister of Rajasthan, it is obvious that Shekhawat will not be content to be an ordinary MP if he wins, which is a near-certainty given his well-established base in Rajasthan. If he becomes an MP, it is unlikely that he will not take a shot at the prime minister's post.
What is more, his wide contacts cutting across party lines, which are much more extensive than Advani's, can ensure his success in the event of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) securing a majority. Already the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is an ally of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has kept its options open about Shekhawat.
It may be recalled that NCP leader Sharad Pawar had closely interacted with Shekhawat in 1990 when the latter was asked by then prime minister Chandra Shekhar to find a solution to the Babri Masjid dispute.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Shekhawat's re-entry into the political arena - he had left the BJP when he became vice-president - has caused tremors in the Advani camp. Evidence of this is available from the party's attempt to ridicule his claims about fighting corruption and portray his foray into politics as a ploy to secure a brighter political future for his son-in-law.
There are other reasons, too, for the unease among Advani's supporters. One is the charge of malfeasance which Shekhawat has levelled against the government of Vasundhara Raje, which was defeated by the Congress in the recent elections in Rajasthan. The other is the "theft" of Rs.25 million from the BJP office in New Delhi, which is being regarded as an insider job and has partly substantiated Shekhawat's allegations about the party's moral lapses.
There is little doubt, therefore, that the feeling of confidence in the Advani camp after he secured the BJP's and the NDA's support for fulfilling his life's ambition has taken a hit.
A second unanticipated development for the party is the loss of its favorite terror card. For the last few years, the BJP had banked on its characterization of the Congress as being "soft on terror" to push its own nationalistic credentials. It was a sure-fire tactic for the BJP, for the Congress's alleged softness was ascribed to its reluctance to alienate its Muslim vote bank.
This juxtaposition of the Congress's alleged sympathies for the Indian Muslims with its timidity in the face of the Pakistan-inspired terrorism was seen by the BJP as its electoral trump card.
But it all turned upside down during the last round of assembly elections when the Congress won a resounding victory in Delhi and defeated the BJP in Rajasthan even as the Indian security forces were waging a 60-hour gun battle in Mumbai against the Pakistan-based terrorists.
Suddenly, the BJP's terror card was gone and it has been left high and dry without an atavistic cause to project - something it has done ever since the saffron brotherhood first targeted the Babri Masjid for demolition in 1990 and then brought it down two years later.
Apart from these two developments, Advani and his party have another reason to worry. It is the sudden projection of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as prime ministerial material by two corporate tsars, Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal, at an investors' conclave in the state.
The basis of their laudatory assessment is Modi's focus on industrial development, for which he has earned a name for himself in the country. But there is an additional aspect which must worry Advani. It is Modi's relatively young age for a politician (he is 58), which brings the spotlight back on the age of the BJP's octogenarian prime ministerial candidate.
Aware of this disadvantage - India has 100 million first time voters - there has been an attempt to brush up Advani's image, but it is difficult to believe that the makeover will be very convincing.
Advani's only success so far has been to obtain the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's (RSS) approval for his bid to be prime minister after a three-year estrangement with it, which followed his characterization of Mohammed Ali Jinnah as secular during a visit to Pakistan.
Following that remark, Advani had to give up his presidentship of the BJP to Rajnath Singh, evidently because of pressure from the RSS, which is the head of the Hindutva brotherhood.
If the latter has now forgiven Advani, it is because the dour Rajnath Singh has failed to enthuse the party cadres even as the general elections draw near. The RSS also does not seem to like Modi because he is too individualistic.
Shekhawat, therefore, is likely to remain a bigger worry for Advani in this tussle between the two octogenarians.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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