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NDA without a guiding force

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar by repeatedly referring to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personality to reject the candidature of his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi for the leadership of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has once again revived within the Bharatiya Janata Party the debate between following a hardcore agenda or a liberal policy. The Gujarat strongman has been on a speech-making spree addressing students at nation’s leading business school, ascetics at Kumbh and corporate honchos to pitchfork himself as the pincer of NDA’s assault during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The Dharam Sansads and corporate conclaves certainly cannot decide for BJP who would be its prime ministerial candidate. Modi perhaps himself also realises that neither the corporate India nor the spiritual India, but the political India decides the prime minister. After all, the VHP Dharam Sansad did not decide on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s name as the prime minister of the NDA government. Nor did Vajpayee ever overtly woo the corporate sector.

He was a politician to the core, who had conceived the idea of anti-Congressism in Uttar Pradesh in alliance with farmer leader Chowdhary Charan Singh much before the Ram Mandir movement was even conceived. Vajpayee even cultivated and promoted Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar for several years, much to the consternation of his party colleagues.

The foundation laid by Vajpayee has ensured that BJP’s alliance with JD(U) has remained intact despite the poet-politician having departed from scene several years ago. He also structured partnership with diverse groups like Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, Akali Dal in Punjab and Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana.

Today when the Manmohan Singh government is hurtling from one scam to another, to their benefit there is no Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the opposition ranks to lead the opposition’s assault. Vajpayee’s hour of glory was when he lost the trust vote in 1996, as it established him, despite the defeat, as leader with extra-ordinary charisma with acceptability across the political spectrum.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma had invited him to form the government in 1996 as BJP had emerged as the single-largest party though they did not have the majority. When invitation came his way, Vajpayee knew the fate which awaited him on the floor of the House but he took up the challenge.

While moving the motion for vote of confidence in the House, Vajpayee opened the debate by quoting the Vedic verse which Swami Vivekanand had quoted at Chicago in 1893 – Ekam Sadwipra Bahuda Vadanti, meaning that all religion is one, but sages call it by various names. He countered the charge of the opposition that the BJP was a fundamentalist party.

It was an unusual session with large number of members from both the sides believing that Vajpayee was the best man suited to lead India in those crucial times but the majority held back its support as they did not trust the BJP. ‘Vajpayee is the right man in the wrong party,’ was the general refrain. Though Vajpayee that day had to resign on the floor of the House on account lacking majority, he emerged as leader of masses leading the BJP to better its position in 1998 and 1999. The hallmark of Vajpayee’s political make-up was his ability at inclusiveness and rise above scoring political brawny points. He accepted to lead an Indian delegation to the United Nations as Leader of Opposition with the junior minister in Ministry of External Affairs Salman Khurshid playing second fiddle. He could never think of embarrassing the government on international forum to secure political advantage at home.

Vajpayee’s politics was far removed from Modi’s. Vajpayee would have never made Mian Ahmed Patel kind of comment, which Modi did in Gujarat to harvest immediate returns. In Modi’s gameplan development is a crucial clog but he has also fallen back on polarising vote in his electoral battles in Gujarat. It’s true that the NDA allies should focus on the removal of the increasingly discredited Manmohan Singh government. However, such campaigns against an incumbent government cannot be launched without the resolution of crisis of leadership within the opposition ranks. The comments made by Nitish Kumar are more of a reflection on the crisis of leadership with the BJP, which is the leading party of the alliance.

The largest party of the alliance has the responsibility to guide the smaller allies. A role which, Vajpayee played very effectively even grooming leaders like Nitish Kumar though he did not belong to his own party. Unfortunately, as much the BJP may claim, though its ranks are replete with competent leaders there is none among the equals who towers over everybody else.

When there is no unanimity over the leader within the largest party, the anxiety among the smaller partners over the future of the alliance is natural. The prime ministerial candidate cannot just be a skipper for the limited period of 2014 polls but be a person who is able to provide leadership to the alliance in the long termas Vajpayee did. In absence of such a leader, the disintegration of the alliance is only matter of time.

By postponing the decision on the selection of leader for another eight months, the BJP is only adding to the confusion among its ranks. It has to take a call to sustain the alliance or revive its aggressive agenda, which runs the risk of political isolation.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor,
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