Debating India

BJP

Old Man And The Holy See

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK

Monday 17 May 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

Vajpayee has been a canny politician and a harried man in parts. May 13 will decide how history will remember him.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is a many-splendoured being. At times an easy-rhyming poet, at times inscrutable, enigmatic and difficult to read. Right through this election campaign, his open-ended statements have created confusion. On occasion, he has played the wily politician, deliberately creating confusion in the Opposition ranks. His remarks about Mulayam Singh Yadav fall in this category. Sources reveal that Vajpayee is amused at the Mulayam-Amar Singh duo now having to make a daily pledge that they will "commit suicide" but not go with the NDA. Now, as he awaits the verdict, he has left all calculations to his partymen. Says a BJP leader: "The PM’s prepared philosophically for the best and the worst case scenario."

But in between, when the campaign was at its peak, the PM appeared moody, almost on the brink of throwing in the towel. Sample this speech made at Bakshi ka Talab, Lucknow. First, he remarked he would like to build a house nearby "though he did not have enough money on him". Then he said people did not want him to go but the "time for retirement" has come. "Pareshan ho gaya hoon. Ghar mein aaraam se baithna chahta hoon (I’m fed up. I want to rest peacefully at home)."

It appeared to be a cry from the heart. Many partymen believe Vajpayee may like a decent exit route if the NDA does not reach the magic 272 mark. He has, after all, had six successful years as PM and may not be inclined to lead a messy and unstable coalition.

But he is walking on a razor’s edge. As the public face of the BJP-led front, it will not be possible for Vajpayee to take a unilateral decision on his retirement. Highly placed sources say: "The bigger the problems in forming a government, the greater will be Vajpayee’s responsibility." And Vajpayee cannot run from a crisis. Says a source close to the PM: "He may have made some cryptic remarks but he’ll not shirk from shouldering the responsibility of forming the government."

After three rounds of polling and several exit polls, BJP strategists have scaled down their expectations to 260 seats for the NDA. Says a senior party leader: "Small parties will come on their own to make up a shortfall of 12." Yet, in private, partymen say that as long as the BJP emerges as the single-largest party, they will bid for power even if the NDA tally is in the range of 240 to 250.

But won’t this make Vajpayee a lame-duck prime minister held to ransom by possible allies like the bsp’s Mayawati or the aiadmk’s Jayalalitha? Vajpayee has not reportedly forgotten the nightmarish experience in 1998 when Jayalalitha kept him waiting for days for her letter of support. Perhaps that is why Vajpayee has been making his typical open-ended quips in the course of the over month-long campaign. In meeting after meeting he has been asking for votes for "stability".

Outlook has learnt that from the very beginning the PM knew that the scope for improvement was limited for the NDA. Says a source: "In fact, he never believed the early hyped-up opinion polls published in some newspapers and magazines which gave the NDA over 300 seats." That is why he publicly remarked that he did not understand the basis on which these polls were done. More recently, after the exit polls came out, he quipped: "Ye sab pollampol hai (This is just a merry-go-round of numbers)."

Says a highly placed source: "The PM knew that a repeat of the 1999 verdict would be a good result for the NDA. That was his target and if he has sounded worried of late it is because he realises the NDA may fail to repeat its 1999 performance." That is why there has been a note of despondence in his recent public utterings. Vajpayee knew that his job could get tougher after the results come out on May 13.

BJP strategists now admit that the BJP’s allies will perform badly in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and even West Bengal.But they maintain that though the BJP will suffer losses in Maharashtra, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Delhi, it will be made up by huge gains in Karnataka and Punjab. Says spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi: "The BJP will not lose ground though there could be some problems with the smaller NDA parties."

While an NDA shortfall can be made up, Vajpayee will face real problems if the BJP’s own tally drops by 15 to 20 seats. Then it is certain that the Advani boys will open a flank against the PM, saying the Atal wave did not work. Since the election was fought in Vajpayee’s name, the responsibility for failure too will be placed at his doorstep. Says a senior leader: "Internally, questions will certainly be raised about Vajpayee if the BJP’s numbers drop." And it won’t merely mean a resurrection of the Vajpayee-Advani power struggle. This may provide the Sangh and its far right sympathisers, both within the BJP and outside it, the pretext to open to question the BJP’s current poll manifesto that is more in sync with the NDA agenda through clever equivocation on the three key features of its ’hidden’ agenda-the temple, uniform civil code and the abolition of Article 370.

Already, within the party and larger parivar there have been murmurs about Vajpayee’s attempt to woo Muslims. Says a veteran MP: "Some of the promises made by the PM amount to the kind of appeasement which we have been ideologically opposed to." Some of the attempts to "secularise" the BJP have also been dismissed by hardliners as a "communist conspiracy". The advertisements released by the party that address the Muslim community are also being described as "votebank politics" by many BJP old-timers.

The stakes are particularly high for Pramod Mahajan who is in charge of the overall advertisement campaign of the BJP besides handling the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. If there is a decline in the BJP’s numbers in UP, then it is certain that Mahajan’s opponents will use the opportunity to try and cut him down to size. There are murmurs that the "boys from Maharashtra" are out of their depth in the complex caste alleys of UP. A known Mahajan-baiter jokes: "Agli bari use Bihar bhejo (Send him to Bihar the next time)!"

But if Mahajan delivers, then he will be hailed for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as he did during the Rajasthan assembly polls in December last year. But the stakes are much higher this time round. For, the BJP cannot afford any losses in Uttar Pradesh and must, in fact, pray for gains if it is to retain its national tally. A good result from UP is essential to ensure a stable second innings for Vajpayee.

Political chemistry is a curious thing. In Indian politics, events suddenly crystallise once the numbers are known. A result that gives the NDA 265 plus makes the PM invincible. Anything less opens up the game and minor actors, fixers et all will come into their own. Even more than the NDA tally, it is the exact BJP numbers that will determine Vajpayee’s future course of action.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, May 17, 2004.

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