Personality politics

SURPRISINGLY, THE two rival political formations, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, have an identical approach to the next general election — both plan to focus on personalities, that is, their respective candidates for the Prime Minister's post. The BJP and its partners in the National Democratic Alliance on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Congress and its supporters on Sonia Gandhi. There is little doubt about the primacy of the two leaders in their camps, there being no challenger in each case. They would be the natural claimants for the top slots in the post-poll dispensation, in whatever role the people want them to play — as the head of the government or the Leader of the Opposition. Nonetheless there are conscious efforts, which will certainly pick up with the approach of the poll time, to project them in advance, for the prime ministerial post, obviously, in the hope of maximising the support of the electorate.

The BJP was the first to play the projection game, though, in doing so, it had to overcome some bumps within its camp. A section of the party seniors favoured the collective leadership of Mr. Vajpayee and the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani. The plan did not work, as was evident from the BJP president, Venkaiah Naidu's prompt retraction, in the wake of sharp reaction, of his statement on the importance of the vikas purush (Mr. Vajpayee) and the loh purush (Mr. Advani) leading the party. In the case of the Congress, Ms. Gandhi's supremacy was unchallenged, in a situation where it was hard even to identify a number two in the party hierarchy.

It suits the BJP to shift the focus to the personality factor — so as to divert attention from inconvenient issues. But why should the Congress have fallen in this trap? There is no explanation except that it allowed sycophancy to have the better of sound political instincts. It will be a pity if the political discourse is distorted in the crucial run-up to the elections. There are several issues, political, economic and those relating to internal and external security, that need to be discussed, and the country's interests will be ill served if these were to be relegated to the secondary place. The people would do well to force the parties to impart a measure of balance to the poll campaign. The main Opposition party has a special responsibility. It is in its interest that the Government's acts of omission and commission are highlighted.

In the case of the Congress, advance projection is an extension of its conduct in the past when the leadership issue was not negotiable, before or after the election. The choice of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was taken for granted, the only exception being the elevation of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who, in 1991, was elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the peculiar situation created by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The record of the non-Congress parties, however, was different. The choice of the leader remained uncertain till the last moment, as it was settled through contests, at times acrimony and bitter rivalry — Morarji Desai was elected in the face of challenge by Charan Singh in 1977, and V.P. Singh against Chandra Shekhar in 1989. In the case of the United Front Governments, too, the choice of Deve Gowda in 1996 and that of I.K. Gujral the following year remained uncertain till the very end. The BJP, however, deviated from the Congress pattern in 1998 and in 1999 when it projected Mr. Vajpayee for the top post before the poll and chose him unanimously later. It proposes to adhere to this practice.

Informal conversation with representatives of the two parties provides some idea of what could crop up in the personality-based debate. To say that each side will emphasise the strength of its candidate and the weaknesses of the rival is to state the obvious. The BJP is certain to focus on the following three issues; 1) Mr. Vajpayee's skill in managing coalitions, (which have come to stay, with the end of the era of single-party rule) and his capacity to hold together disparate groups, 2) experience and 3) moderation. These advantages would be contrasted with the record and performance of Ms. Gandhi.

The BJP may not face any problem in carrying conviction on this count. Mr. Vajpayee did show considerable skill in forging and managing coalitions. His was not an easy job. In a situation where the BJP was considered a political untouchable, he acquired for it a measure of respectability, winning over the socialists as represented by George Fernandes and securing the support of the Janata Dal (or its various factions) and powerful regional groups — the Akali Dal in Punjab, the Chautala group in Haryana, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, apart from the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and one or the other Dravidian party in Tamil Nadu.

As against that, Ms. Gandhi's record has been lacking in realism. Disregarding the changed political context, she allowed herself to live in the past glory and, in the process, threw away the chances of ousting the BJP from power. Of late, the Congress has changed the policy line and showed willingness to join hands with like-minded secular groups. In practice, however, it has messed up even an existing coalition — in Maharashtra with Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party — and squandered the advantage accruing to it after the exit of the BSP-BJP coalition in Uttar Pradesh, spoiling the prospects of cooperation with a powerful regional force, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party.

As for experience, the BJP campaigners will dwell upon Mr. Vajpayee's five years in office now as Prime Minister and, for a short period in 1977-79 as the External Affairs Minister in the Morarji Desai Government, as against the fact of Ms. Gandhi not being in the government at all — and not having the advantage of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who was thoroughly groomed by Nehru, and who, despite that advantage, used to be called a goongy gurhia (dumb doll) at the initial stage of her tenure. The dynastic connection and her foreign origin will be among the other talking points by her detractors. The Congress campaign in support of Ms. Gandhi will revolve round her record in "galvanising" the party, after taking over its stewardship in 1998. There will be special reference to the change of direction at her instance — that is, the shift from the policy of outside support to the United Front Government to independent functioning, aggressive campaigning in the elections and the consequent electoral success in 15 States. Her role as the Leader of the Opposition, exposure by her of the scams of the Vajpayee Government and its failure to counter threats to internal and external security will be listed among other plus points.

Ms. Gandhi, it was known, was opposed to Rajiv Gandhi's decision to join politics after the death of his younger brother, Sanjay Gandhi, in 1980. In a book on Rajiv, published after his death, she was quoted thus: "For the first time, there was tension between Rajiv and me. I fought like a tigress — for him, us and our children — above all, our freedom". She was reluctant to take charge of Congress' affairs in the past — though the post of party president was given to her on a platter after Rajiv's death. Party campaigners may recall all this, and the change in her subsequent stand — her thorough involvement in party affairs — to highlight the strides made by her in a short time and her leadership qualities. They will talk of her inheritance of the Gandhi-Nehru legacy, and project her role as an extension of the contribution made by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Her ascendancy in the Congress and the unquestioned acceptance of her stewardship by all sections of the party would be equated, through a queer twist of logic, with her sway over the people. The talk of her foreign origin — which will continue to figure, in one form or the other — will be countered by emphatic statements on how she has adopted Indian traditions.Apart from this, the Congress could be dependent on trying to tarnish Mr. Vajpayee's image, blaming him for hypocrisy in working for the Sangh Parivar's agenda under a facade of moderation, and for trying to resolve foreign policy and security issues through "poetry". The exchanges could get nastier but will that help the electors, the ultimate sovereign, in exercising their judgment?

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