—BJP leader Lalji Tandon after the Lucknow
sari stampede in which 22 women died
Election 2004 had been billed as a presidential contest. As the BJP liked to put it, it is Atal Behari Vajpayee versus a question mark. But the man at the axis of the entire BJP-NDA campaign hasn't been himself since the April 12 stampede in Lucknow. The frown lines on his forehead look somewhat more pronounced and he has been making remarks that reveal a disturbed mind. He seems tired and there have been whispers that he is inclined to give it all up. In short, question marks abound.
First, Vajpayee confounded his own party and the entire NDA brass when he said he was tired of running large coalitions. This was a curious statement from the consensus man who had made his pet coinage, "coalition dharma", very much an article of faith—a man who realises it is the NDA and not merely the BJP that is his biggest strength. Then Vajpayee set off endless speculation when he told a TV channel that the BJP had decided on his successor. He told yet another TV network that he could not understand the arithmetic employed by pollsters and wondered how the NDA was shown to be getting so many seats. Hardly the sort of statements the political class expected from a man whose popularity continues to touch flattering heights and who remains the fulcrum of the coalition. But at the back of his mind is Lucknow and the other bad news of the month, in the form of his "old friend" Ram Jethmalani.
So even though the exit polls predicted more or less a clear victory for the ruling combine, Vajpayee has been troubled. Those close to him point out that at heart the PM is a pessimist who doesn't get carried way. There are various interpretations on why he is sounding low. According to a veteran parliamentarian, Vajpayee often "feels like a prisoner of his own party". He is reportedly not altogether happy with some nuances of the BJP's campaign themes, India Shining and feelgood. Sources reveal that from the very onset of the campaign, Vajpayee believed the thrust should have been somewhat more pro-poor and rural. That is why the Lucknow incident proved to be the proverbial breaking point for the prime minister.
One result of Vajpayee's moodiness is that there are murmurs in the Advani camp about the prime minister's age and apparent sense of fatigue. The party has after all had to issue several clarifications after the PM's recent statements. Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu held separate press conferences to clarify that the PM remains committed to the coalition dharma. Meanwhile, NDA convenor George Fernandes told Outlook that the "prime minister was merely joking and the press was making too much out of a casual statement".
It is easy to decode Vajpayee's perturbation at the Lucknow incident. Even though the party machinery has distanced itself from Lalji Tandon's birthday bash where the stampede occurred when free saris were being distributed, its potential for damage cannot be written off. People who attended the birthday celebrations from mohallas across Lucknow have decided to boycott the elections en masse. Even if they are paid compensation, they are in no mood to forgive. In fact, a part of the compensation was paid on April 19 but it only rekindled the agony. "What money are they talking of, can they bring back my dead wife? Why should we waste our time on casting votes?" asks Gur Prasad, unable to shake off the personal loss.
The shopkeepers near the park where the tragedy occurred only scoff at the manner in which BJP leaders have been trying to prove that it was not their party's show. Eyewitnesses point out how the entire function looked like a big BJP tamasha. The advertisements in local dailies inviting women to collect free saris carried the names of senior state-level BJP leaders. The chief guest for the function was to be former chief minister Kalyan Singh and special guest Vinay Katiyar was to share the dais with him. According to the fir lodged on April 17 at the Mahanagar police station, Tandon and others "induced the prospective voters to come and receive the free gifts of saris".
The BJP is worried that the sari deaths would bring to sharp relief the resentment among the underclass in the Hindi heartland in general and UP in particular. This is bad news for a party anyway seen to be upper caste- and urban-oriented. Feelgood and India Shining could sound cruel if contrasted with the subsistence-level lives of the masses. It needed only a harsh reality check to break the hypnotic thrall of the slogans—the mood in Lucknow confirms just this. There is such a perceptible drop in the BJP morale that campaigning has been very low-key in the constituency. Asks a party worker: "Do you think any poor woman will vote for us after the sari deaths?"
The Opposition will milk all it can from the sari tragedy. And in Lucknow it will be played to the full by the Congress and more importantly by Ram Jethmalani who is known for not hesitating before hitting below the belt. According to sources in the BJP, the feedback from Lucknow was such that on the morning of April 20, political circles were abuzz with the news that the PM was considering contesting from a second seat and that either Bhopal or Jaipur were being contemplated. This was hastily denied at the party press briefing. "It is not as if anyone has any doubts that the PM would win from Lucknow. Jethmalani does not stand a chance. But what if the PM does not win by a huge margin? That would mean an embarrassment," says a party leader. According to sources, it was Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley who strongly opposed the idea that the PM would contest from two seats. They prevailed on Vajpayee with the argument that it would send out the wrong signal.
One aspect of the post-sari drama is Vajpayee making a public appeal to his old comrade Ram Jethmalani to withdraw from the Lucknow race. According to party sources, the lawyer's statement threatening to make startling revelations put the already anxious PM under further pressure. There are suggestions that the prime minister was misled into issuing the appeal that eventually rebounded on him with Jethmalani first agreeing to pull out and then saying that he would fight Vajpayee who failed to honour his side of the friendship.As it is, the PM has not taken kindly to Congress leader Janardhan Poojary raising questions about Vajpayee's 'foster' family at a press conference in Bangalore last fortnight. No one is clear about what issues Jethmalani is likely to rake up in the course of the campaign in Lucknow.
Sources say both the BJP's and Vajpayee's anxieties over UP are mounting. There are deep concerns that Mulayam Singh Yadav will make gains at the cost of the BJP—greatly increasing his bargaining power post-poll—while the Congress will hold to its tally of 10, perhaps even picking up a few extra seats. That is why Mahajan, in charge of the BJP campaign across India, has now decided to park himself in UP which has three polling dates, starting April 26 and concluding on May 10. Lucknow goes to the polls on May 5. Sensing opportunity, the Congress too has decided to press the services of Rahul Gandhi outside the Amethi-Rae Bareli belt.
In an attempt to exorcise his ghosts, Vajpayee has even played a card that goes against the very grain of BJP and Sangh ideology—appeasing the Muslims.At Kishanganj, Bihar, the PM promised to recruit two lakh Urdu teachers to promote this beleaguered language and also said he would make available Rs 74 crore for madrassas. This is a move that has come up for sharp criticism from Muslim organisations. Many of them see in this panic-driven opportunism on the part of the PM since it would be virtually impossible for the Centre to provide such a huge number of jobs when it has only 2,000 Urdu schools across the country under its control.
Such panic arises because the BJP is worried that a section of the Brahmins—in all, 13 per cent of UP's electorate—is turning away from the party. The Rajputs have in any case drifted to the SP. And the benefit of the 'transferable' Dalit vote—delivered via the bsp—too isn't there this time. That leaves the BJP without a solid core vote. So unless there are massive divisions in a four-cornered contest, the BJP tally could come down.
Besides UP, there is the spectre of loss coming in from three key states where its NDA allies may not perform as well as last time. The reports from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra aren't particularly encouraging. Should the tdp, aiadmk and the Shiv Sena fail, the BJP will face a more uncomfortable situation post-election than what most exit polls indicate. While reverses in the Telangana region for Chandrababu Naidu were expected, the situation in coastal AP and Rayalaseema, which go to the polls on April 26, don't look too upbeat either. And if the reported IB analysis giving the NDA just 12 of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu is correct, that's more reason for the PM to feel uneasy.
And when under pressure, Vajpayee is known to make statements full of loose ends. A veteran Vajpayee-watcher says: "The problem is that when he makes such remarks in the heat and dust of an election campaign, it confuses the party, the cadre, the allies." Yet there could be a method behind the moodiness. Could Vajpayee be sending out signals that he would like to make post-poll adjustments only on his own terms? Is he telling his party that if there is a surprise in the verdict and the NDA does not win as handsomely as some of them predict, then he will not be party to unprincipled alliances and a desperate bid to hang on to power? After six years in office, the image-conscious Vajpayee would like to win gracefully and with ease. He is still searching for that place in history.