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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

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The political loneliness of Shekhawat

January 14, 2009

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The Shekhawat episode -- he has questioned the Bharatiya Janata Party's projection of LK Advani [Images] as its prime ministerial nominee and declared his intent to contest the Lok Sabha election -- has exposed the fault-lines in the BJP, at a time when it needs to close ranks and revisit its poll strategy.

As for Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, he has exposed his desire to get back into active politics. Since he lost out to Pratibha Devi Sinh Patil in the 2007 presidential race, he has been increasingly isolated both in Rajasthan where Vasundhara Raje Scindia  marginalised him and other big daddies of the BJP, and given no role in Delhi [Images]. In India, politicians find it very difficult to call it quits.

'Rajasthan ka ek hi Singh', as Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was known over the years, is feeling offended today because his views were ignored in ticket selection in the recent assembly polls in Rajasthan. He felt humiliated when the name of his son-in-law Narpat Singh Rajvi  was cleared only in the fourth list, and Vasundhara -- who he had helped to enthrone -- kept them cooling their heels. He was angry when Advani decided to back Vasundhara as the leader of opposition recently, dismissing the reported claims by Rajvi   that he would  be able to cobble together a government even with 76 MLAs. It is hardly a secret that Shekhawat would like the party leadership to clip Vasundhara's wings and if possible send her out of state politics.

Shekhawat has made statements which are contradictory. He said he is no longer a member of the BJP, having quit the party when elected vice president. If he did not consider himself a member of the party, why make the point that he was not answerable to Rajnath Singh (obviously he won't be). Or say that he was the senior-most leader in the party (which he is supposed to have quit). Or that he was not consulted when the decision was made to project Advani as PM (why should he be when he was not part of the BJP?).

It  was, however, astonishing that the statement of a 86 year old leader, virtually retired, and who by his own admission is not even in the party,  should create so much turbulence in the BJP.  From the way the party reacted, it seemed as if he was about to snatch away the PMship from Advani.

If the BJP had let Shekhawat's statement -- that he planned to contest the Lok Sabha -- pass, or given a calibrated response, it might have created a different kind of debate. The discussion might have centred more around whether those who hold constitutional positions should get back into active politics. Legally and constitutionally, there is nothing to prevent them from standing for elections or rejoining a party, but convention demands that they stay away from active politics.

There is impeccable logic behind that principle. They may be tempted to misuse their constitutional position while in office, to favour those who would help after they step down and  return to active politics.

The same logic also applies to say a chief justice going back to practice in the high court or the Supreme Court after retirement. And even to government servants. Many bureaucrats start to prepare for their post-retirement activity when they enter their fifties by granting favours to those likely to open doors for them after they retire.

Rajnath Singh's sharp response to Shekhawat -- that someone who had swum in the Ganga should not think of a cesspool -- only raised his hackles and provoked a controversy. More important, it shifted  the focus away  from the propriety of a former vice president contesting elections, to the merits and demerits of Advani as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

Few believe that Shekhawat, for all his Thakur appeal (which did not work during the last presidential election when he lost to Pratibha Patil [Images]) and "moderate" credentials, can replace Advani as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. Advani's candidature was cleared by his own party after due debate, endorsed by the RSS after much to-ing and fro-ing, and given a stamp of approval by the NDA. Even the less than happy Sangh leaders had conceded  that as long as  Advani was there, and Vajpayee had retired,  there was little chance of someone else becoming prime minister.

The BJP leaders are a worried lot today with the party fast losing its twin planks of terror and prices as issues to flog in the coming Lok Sabha elections. The Congress has successfully managed to divert public attention from the initial anger against politicians to Pakistan, which has admitted that the captured terrorist Kasab [Images] is a Pakistani. With inflation coming down for a variety of reasons, prices are not agitating people in the same way as they were a few months ago. And now, Shekhawat's statement has put a question mark against the leadership, unsettling an issue which  had been settled.

Shekhawat's latest salvo mirrors the internal contradictions in the BJP. Such a statement would have been unthinkable in 1995 when Vajpayee was anointed the party's prime ministerial candidate. Rajasthan's one-time 'Singh' has played on the anti-Advani sentiment inside the party and given it a voice.

There is a restiveness in the party that the BJP has not taken off under Advani's leadership as it was expected to. An impression has gained ground that he is being buffeted around between the moderate allies, who also represent his own inclinations, and the Rajnath Singh-RSS hardline, unable therefore to chart a clear path.

Though the elections have been a mixed bag for the party -- it held on to Madhya Pradesh [Images] and Chhatisgarh, won bypolls in Karnataka, and lost Rajasthan and Delhi -- the BJP, usually quick to mount corrective strategies and campaigns, seems to be pulling in different directions. It has not been able to make the most of Advani's 50 years of experience in public life, when it  could have made a pitch that the country, entering a difficult period on the economic and security fronts, now needs an experienced hand to steer the ship of state. Instead, it is the usually slow-to-react Congress which has been on the offensive about Rahul Gandhi's [Images] youthful leadership in a country as young as India.

It is a pity that Shekhawat, who has enjoyed a stature, having been three times chief minister of Rajasthan and vice president of India, should appear grasping for fruits of power at this stage of his life. It is one thing to reach out for PMship, and quite another to be sought out, as an elder statesmen and a possible consensual choice, in the event of a such a situation -- and need -- arising. 

On the other hand, the BJP leadership, in the belligerent response it gave to Shekhawat, has only displayed its nervousness and insecurity.

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