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19 September, 2011

On a fast track to power

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Parliamentary elections are not due in India until May 2014 but the race for the prime minister’s post is already on. Two prime ministerial aspirants belonging to the opposition — Bharatiya Janata Party, former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi — have started running, presumably envisaging the possibility of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, battered by corruption charges, collapsing before its five-year term ends.

It is widely believed that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Rahul, who is a Member of Parliament and general secretary of the Congress, will be that party’s prime ministerial candidate. Given the Nehru-Gandhi family’s sway over the party, he is unlikely to encounter any opposition from within.

The BJP had headed the National Democratic Alliance government that ruled for six years. It sought a fresh mandate for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004 with the slogan “India Shining” but was turned down. After Vajpayee stepped down, the party made another bid for power in 2009 projecting Advani as its prime ministerial candidate. It was again turned down.

Lately the party has been preparing for life beyond Advani, who will be 84 in November. It picked Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, both in their late 50s, to lead the party in the two houses of Parliament and the Hindu rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of its political ideology, pitchforked Nitin Gadkari, 54, into the party president’s chair.

A few days ago Advani announced he would go on a Rath Yatra (chariot ride) shortly to highlight the issue of corruption. Political observers viewed it as an indication that age has not withered his prime ministerial ambition.

Narendra Modi began a three-day fast “to promote communal harmony, peace and unity”on Saturday, his 61st birthday. Critics saw it as an attempt to live down the ignominy of having presided over the communal riots of 2002 and improve his image in preparation for a bid for the prime minister’s post.

Two senior police officers of Gujarat had stated that when riots broke out following the burning of a rail coach carrying RSS volunteers at Godhra station, which resulted in 59 deaths, Modi had asked the force to give Hindus time to vent their anger against Muslims. A special investigation team set up by the Supreme Court to look into the riot cases reportedly found no evidence to prosecute him but a court-appointed lawyer differed with it.

Last week the apex court left it to the trial court to examine the report and decide whether or not to register a case against Modi. He and the rest of the BJP leadership claimed this amounted to rejection of the allegations against him.

Both Advani and Modi are close to the RSS and if called upon to choose between them it may pick the younger one for the prime minister’s post. Advani was present when Modi began his fast and, in a speech that was high on rhetoric and low on fact, said, “All NDA ruled states are examples of good governance and Gujarat was showing the results of being a corruption-free state.”

Modi’s quest for a fast track to New Delhi comes in the wake of reports that US analysts believe there has been a precipitous decline in the Congress party’s fortunes following corruption scandals and the BJP may come to power with Modi as the prime minister.

In 2009, the Congress had emerged as the largest party in the 543-member Lok Sabha winning 206 seats with 28.55% of the votes polled. The BJP secured 116 seats with 18.80% of the votes. It is reasonable to assume that the Congress party’s fortunes have declined since then but there is nothing to indicate that the BJP’s support base has grown.

If the next election is fought on the issue of corruption, the BJP will be at as much disadvantage as the Congress. Modi had fought shy of appointing a Lokayukta to deal with corruption charges. Last month (Gujarat) Governor Kamla Beniwal made an appointment without waiting for advice from the Cabinet. Recently the party’s national leadership had replaced its Chief Ministers in Karnataka and Uttarakhand who faced serious allegations.

The lesson that the emergence of a civil society group headed by Anna Hazare as the central government’s chief adversary holds is that the people are disillusioned with the ruling dispensation as well as the opposition. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 19, 2011

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