18 June 2000

After Atal who?

18 June 2000
Sunday Times of India

After Atal who?

Is there a tradition of succession in the BJP. Siddharth Varadarajan
finds out

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the BJP's greatest strength as well as its
greatest weakness. Shorn of his image as the soft, cuddly face of
Hindutva -- the famous mukhota that Govindacharya once referred to --
the saffron party would find it hard to sell itself in the political

For the BJP, the Atal factor was crucial both in winning the number of
votes it did in the last election and also in securing the support of
diverse regional parties like the TDP, DMK and Trinamul Congress. In
the parties, the problems of succession is a serious one, but in the
BJP, it assumes potentially cataclysmic dimensions for the BJP. The
party would need a leader who would help it hold on to its electoral
flock and also keep the regional allies locked in a tight embrace. But
today, there is virtually no one in the BJP's second rung of leadership
that can play such a role. And the RSS knows it.

Next in line in terms of seniority after Vajpayee and a favourite of
RSS hardliners, Union home minister L K Advani suffers from a severe
image problem. Try as he might to live down his image as a rath -riding
militant bent upon salvaging `Hindu pride' from the ruins of mosques
and other `disputed structures', Advani just cannot shake off the tag
of extremism that he acquired during the campaign to demolish the Babri
Masjid. Eight years on, he has tried to mellow but his body language
still seems menacing. During the last elections, this writer met a
Muslim shopkeeper in Gonda who said he would vote BJP ``for Atalji''
but who insisted Advani was a different kettle of fish. Elsewhere in
the state, BJP activists acknowledged that fighting an election with
Advani at the helm would be extremely difficult.

Murli Manohar Joshi is the other senior leader who could be expected to
make a bid for the top job but he has all the disadvantages of Advani
plus one: his hold over his constituency, Allahabad, is pretty tenuous.
During the last election, Joshi won only because the opposition votes
were split between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress.

Jaswant Singh could conceivably be acceptable to the BJP's allies but
he is hardly the man who could lead the BJP to victory at the polls. He
came a cropper in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections and has since preferred
the comforts of the Rajya Sabha to the rigours of mass politics.

What of the BJP's `Young' Turks -- Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Pramod
and Narendra Modi? Jaitley and Shourie are essentially
unelectable. Mahajan -- though an excellent `organisation' man -- is
not a mass leader by any definition. Modi, party ideologue and trouble-
shooter par excellence, suffers from both the extremist tag and the
lack of personal engagement with electoral politics.

The one person who might swing it for the BJP in the post-Atal period
is Sushma Swaraj, whose oratory and carefully cultivated homeliness
could conceivably blunt the electorally inconvenient angularities of
the BJP's extended platform. But for that to happen, the sangh parivar
would have to overcome its aversion to having a woman in charge,
something that is unlikely to happen.

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