BHAIRON Singh Shekhawat was in Delhi over the past week even as the BJP leadership hammered out a "consensus" on party general secretary Kushabhau Thakre as the next party president. And despite the Rajas-than chief minister's denial that his hat was in the ring, the speculation didn't cease.
But in the end, the view in party circles was that Shekhawat, though the first choice of the outnumbered Atal Behari Vajpayee-led 'liberals', is on the defensive after the rout of the party in his home state in the general elections. And a strong pitch for him from the Vajpayee camp could only have been at the cost of a possible rupture in the Sangh fabric, so his chances receded. Despite what the supporters of Vajpayee and even Murli Manohar Joshi may have wanted, consensus veered around Thakre and the PM, albeit reluctantly, gave in.
In fact, the only time the presidentship of the Bharatiya Janata Party passed out of the hands of Vajpayee and L.K. Advani was in 1991, when Joshi was elected president for a two-year term. The conventional view is that the party is still dealing with the fallout of that move in terms of groupism and intra-party bickering. From the current campaign in the Bihar unit of the party against general secretary K.N. Govindacharya to the Great Mukhauta Controversy, the hand of Joshi supporters is seen in many of the controversies that have dogged the party over the past few years.
Joshi's admirers feel that his only "crime" was that he had a mind of his own and acted on its dictates. While he may not have represented a generational shift in the party leadership, he was seen as the comparatively younger man who would eventually lead the party out of the shadow of the big two, Vajpayee and Advani. But, whatever the reasons, it didn't work. Instead, the party spent the past five years building up a formidable second-rung leadership which will, eventually, represent a generational shift—Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan, Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar...the list is long.
But there seems to be no danger of the Joshi years problems being repeated, as the party prepares to appoint Advani-man Thakre, among the senior-most RSS activists on loan to the BJP apart from vice-president Sunder Singh Bhandari, as party president. "I do not expect any more nominations. Our party tradition has always been to elect the president by consensus," said another vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy on April 11, a day after Thakre's nomination was proposed by Advani and Vajpayee. Ideally, say party sources, the new president should be someone in tune with the Sangh parivar worldview; an organisational man who is identified with the cadre; a leader who can work in tandem with Advani, who has virtually shaped the party with his own hands over the past decade; and a man whom the BJP prime minister can work with. Thakre would seem to fit the bill.
But the irony for the BJP which has laid great store on "preparing the party for the future", is the realisation that despite the array of stars in the second line of leaders, it is looking to Thakre, who at 76 is actually older than Vajpayee and Advani, to lead the party at this crucial juncture.
The argument against the younger crop is that the contemporary scenario is far too delicate and complicated to blood one of them; and anyway the second-rung leadership needs some more time before a definite pecking order is established. Bhandari is widely perceived to have lost his chance when Joshi pipped him to the post and his less-than-perfect relationship with Vajpayee is cited by party sources as another hurdle.
"Everybody else is in the Union government and the party is clear that its distinct identity needs to be maintained," says a BJP leader. At the same time, the realities of running a coalition have to be understood by the cadre and as Vajpayee emphasised on April 6 at the BJP central office on the party's 18th birthday, "the cadre will have to show a sense of maturity". A demand Thakre has been quick to take on board as it is not lost on him that a working relationship with the party's prime minister is of the essence.
"Those who say that Thakre is trying to shed his hardline image are wrong to the extent that his commitment to the RSS-inclined BJP agenda is absolute. But he would certainly not like to be seen as unreasonable," says a senior BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh.
While Thakre is expected to work in tandem with Advani and consult him on all major decisions, sources say that his closeness to the RSS also means that he will help ensure that at least the cadre does not begin to share the perception that the party agenda has been "diluted" to achieve power.
But for all the polite noises about tempering the party's stand in view of the pulls of coalition politics, key commitments remain. "The Hindutva line adopted under Advaniji's leadership is in tune with the basic ethos of Bharat. The Congress and the Marxists keep saying they are unhappy with us. I am happy they are unhappy," Thakre told Outlook.
As for the Ram temple and other "contentious" issues, he adds: "Our agenda is the same. It was there in the elections as well and people knew of it and voted for us, even if the mandate was limited." But on the threshold of what will be the pinnacle of his political career and with the moderate Vajpayee as PM, there is a note of caution in Thakre's words—"since the mandate was not fully for the BJP agenda, the party cannot pretend it was and pressure the government to implement it in full measure."
The other point emphasised by Thakre is the independence of the party. "A vibrant party is useful for the BJP members in government as it provides a parallel system of information. After all, the bureaucracy can't become perfect overnight." And he promises there will be "no backseat driving".
But it is the complete dependence of the party on the Advani-Vajpayee duo for party strength and mass appeal respectively, and that must be worrying the BJP think-thank more than anything else. Thakre may fit the bill for the moment, but as the Joshi interregnum showed, the BJP is far from having chosen any real successor.