Neena Vyas

Can it ignore youth factor?

NEW DELHI: As the Bharatiya Janata Party braces itself for facing Parliament after its electoral defeat — and before that it has to choose its leaders in the two Houses — a problem staring the party in the face is how to re-invent itself and get rid of dead wood. A leader recently expressed the dilemma: “We have to decide whether we want to be a political party or the Archaeological Survey of India.” The suggestion was the party should decide between modernising itself in tune with a new generation of Indians and continuing to protect old monuments in the form of persons or ideas that were clearly outdated.

A meeting of the BJP Parliamentary Party has been called for Sunday and it is expected to formally elect L.K. Advani as its leader in the Lok Sabha, which will automatically make him the Leader of the Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha. Mr. Advani initially let it be known that he no longer wanted to hold on to that position which he enjoyed in the 14th Lok Sabha, but was “persuaded” within 24 hours to change his mind in the interest of a “smooth transition of power” later.

What this episode suggests is that the BJP is not yet ready for the generational change and is simply putting off the inevitable for a better time — maybe, a few months or even a year from now.

The BJP should have no trouble indicating that Sushma Swaraj will be its deputy leader in the Lok Sabha. Some of the other heavyweights in the House are too senior for this job — Rajnath Singh is party president; Jaswant Singh was leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha in his previous term and cannot be expected to become a deputy leader in the Lok Sabha; Murli Manohar Joshi was a former party president and veteran leader; and Yashwant Sinha may see this position as not worthy of his status as a former Minister for Finance and External Affairs.

In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP’s choice in all likelihood is between M. Venkaiah Naidu and Arun Jaitley. While no one in the party has any doubt that Mr. Jaitley will be an effective leader in the Upper House, problems could arise if a choice has to be made between his getting this position and retaining his job as the seniormost general secretary of the BJP. Besides the ‘Jinnah was secular’ formulation of Mr. Advani, a reason why he was forced to give up his position as party president in the last days of 2005 was that he was also the Leader of the Opposition. That went against the BJP principle of “one man, one post.”

The BJP may well be reluctant to let Mr. Jaitley get bogged down in parliamentary protocol, instead of focussing on party work and taking charge of political affairs in sensitive States.

The battle for leadership and primacy in the party will begin towards the end of the year when Mr. Rajnath Singh’s current tenure comes to an end. The BJP and its mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will have to decide who takes charge from him; if he has to continue as president, the party constitution, which disallows a second consecutive three-year term, will have to be amended. Already the buzz is that such an amendment is being talked about, but the final decision would depend on getting the RSS on board.

In the cat and mouse game, the race for the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha will begin as and when Mr. Advani steps down. Could the BJP ignore the “youth factor,” which has worked in favour of the Congress, and wait for two or three more years on this score?

Another crucial issue is whether the BJP will persist with its hard Hindutva agenda or present a “moderate” face Vajpayee style. Mr. Jaitley has made known his preference for the “moderate” path, but Mr. Singh is expected to jump on the Hindutva plank, hoping, perhaps, to get the RSS on his side to win the argument. The problem for the moderates will come from the RSS offshoots such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the “sants and sadhus” it has cultivated.