L K Advani seems to have found in the new method of a personal blog on the internet a highly effective way of keeping himself in the limelight. For an octogenarian to avail himself of this modern-day variant of an article in the print media or a press conference to express his views is a matter of considerable credit because it not only underlines his eagerness to remain in public life by keeping up with the changing times but also shows that he is full of ideas which he wants to share.
This excellent trait has however been somewhat discomfiting for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which, like most parties, likes to keep its internal ruminations a secret, especially those relating to itself. So, when Advani says that the BJP has fallen short of the popular expectations created by the Congress’s failures of governance, or when he argues that the next prime minister may not be from either the BJP or the Congress, then he creates a flutter in his own party and outside.
The context of the last remark was noteworthy. It followed a virtual demand from Nitish Kumar that the BJP should not even think of projecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. Although the Bihar chief minister has expressed this view earlier, his latest reassertion is apparently a pre-emptive move based on the belief that a third successive victory by Modi in the forthcoming Gujarat assembly elections will leave the BJP with no alternative but to support the Gujarat chief minister’s not-so-secret desire to move to the national stage.
Nitish Kumar’s subsequent remark that he had no intention of standing for the prime ministerial post was obviously intended to douse suspicions that his anti-Modi stance was meant to boost his own prospects. But, whatever the personal motivations, Advani lost no time to seize the opportunity to make his own point. Behind his controversial foray, however, is a hint to his own party that, first, the road to the prime minister’s office is not strewn with roses and, second, that there aren’t any widely acceptable contenders within the BJP as in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time.
In the process of presenting this scenario, Advani seems to have courted the risk of ruling himself out – an acknowledgement of the bitter truth that his party is not too keen on his candidature. But, at the same time, he has emphasized the politically unpleasant reality of a leadership vacuum in the two national parties. To many, this may amount to stating the obvious. But for a leader of Advani’s stature to say this is a disturbing message for the country as a whole.
The Congress will disagree, of course, by arguing that it has not one but two prime ministerial candidates in Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. But, by that token, the BJP has several – Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and perhaps Advani himself. So, the numbers do not really count. What is more relevant is the calibre of the claimants. From this standpoint, the vacuum is discernible. For, where the Congress is concerned, neither Manmohan Singh, who has been called an “under-achiever” by Time magazine, nor Rahul Gandhi, who has only been playing “cameo roles”, according to Law Minister Salman Khurshid, inspires confidence.
The BJP’s position is no better. If Modi is considered a front-runner, judging from Nitish Kumar’s angst, it is only because the Gujarat chief minister has been advertising his own case by holding sadbhavna or goodwill fasts and claiming that his record of development has outshone the charges of his complicity in the communal violence of 2002. But, since the anti-minority stain has not been erased and there are serious objections to his claims from others in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it is now fairly certain that he will find it extremely difficult to secure his party’s support, as the Advani blog suggests. That leaves Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley, neither of whom measures up to the public perception of a prime minister.
The alternative, as Advani has said, is to have a non-Congress, non-BJP candidate although history shows that such interlopers from the regional parties – like H.D. Deve Gowda or disgruntled former Congressmen like Morarji Desai or Charan Singh or Chandra Shekhar or VP Singh or IK Gujral – do not survive for long. The outlook, therefore, is bleak. While three untimely deaths – those of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1991– deprived the Congress of their prolonged tenures and the possibility of building up the next generation of leaders, Rahul Gandhi has failed to live up to expectations.
The BJP, on the other hand, is hobbled by its anti-minority image as a result of the overarching influence on the party exerted by the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A country of a billion-plus people remains without someone it can look up to as a leader.