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March 30, 1998

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BJP will soon have a new chief

Rajesh Ramachandran in New Delhi

In the coming weeks, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will have a new president. The date of the BJP presidential election will be fixed at the national executive committee meeting, scheduled to be held in Delhi on April 11 and 12.

Though Union Home Minister Lal Kishinchand Advani's term ended in November -- the party constitution bars a leader from continuing as president after two consecutive two-year terms -- the poll had to be postponed in anticipation of the general election. The last national executive was held in Bhubaneswar on December 19 and 20, 1997.

According to party sources, the frontrunners for the post are senior-most general secretary Kushabhau Thakre and former Lok Sabha deputy speaker Suraj Bhan.

Thakre's name was doing the rounds last year too. "Though Thakre's candidature was publicised, it was Bhan who was the top contender for the post," says a senior BJP leader. Bhan is a Dalit, and his elevation would serve the party's objective of shedding its Brahmin-Bania image.

As for Thakre, Vajpayee seems to have vetoed his candidature. Several other leaders were also reluctant to back him in November as ''no one was sure that an unknown face like him could play an effective role during the campaign''.

However, a BJP leader told Rediff On The NeT, "If the party is keen on cleaning up the set-up, Thakre is the ideal candidate. He can cleanse the party of unwanted elements. But Vajpayee has his reservations against Thakre. And, given Vajpayee's stature, it is unlikely that the party would go against his wishes."

While Thakre is still a Rashtriya Sweyamsewak Sangh pracharak with strong Hindutva leanings, Bhan is a mild-mannered leader of the old saffron school, who came up through the RSS ranks and has no known enemies.

In case Bhan is not considered for the top party post, he could be assigned to Lucknow as the Uttar Pradesh governor, say senior party leaders.

Other names making the rounds within party circles are that of Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and BJP general secretary Govindacharya.

Though the recent Rajasthan debacle need not necessarily affect Shekhawat's chances, he might not be interested in the post, considering his age and poor health. Shekhawat told one television interviewer recently that he would prefer to stay in Rajasthan.

But even if he does move to Delhi, the RSS would not like to have "the deadly combination of Vajpayee heading the government and Shekhawat the party. Shekhawat's freewheeling political manipulations have not gone well with the Sangh."

As for Govindacharya, the go-getter is too controversial for the top post -- he incurred the party's wrath with his controversial clean-up operation in the past, and was packed off to Tamil Nadu as the person in charge of the state unit.

Though the RSS would like to have him at the helm of party affairs, this pracharak might not be Vajpayee's choice. After all, he is credited with describing the prime minister as the party's 'mask' in a reported conversation with British diplomats last year.

Another contender is party vice-president Sunder Singh Bhandari. However, Bhandari, the BJP's leading ideologue, has not been keeping good health of late.

Close on the heels of the BJP presidential election would come the organisational overhaul with party general secretary and Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj and vice-president and Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madanlal Khurana losing their organisational responsibilities.

"There is no constitutional provision regarding the one-man, one-post requirement,'' says a party leader. ''But that has been the norm. When Kalyan Singh became Uttar Pradesh chief minister, he resigned as party vice-president.''

The party presidential poll will be held after the elections for the Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat and Haryana units are conducted.

Elections '98

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