Vajpayee era ends, Advani is BJP’s PM candidate


New Delhi : Veteran Hindu nationalist Lal Krishna Advani, 80, was Monday chosen by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its next prime ministerial candidate amid growing speculation about early parliamentary elections, ending the era of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Support TwoCircles

Advani, who spearheaded the BJP’s dramatic growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s by aggressively advocating Hindutva, was the unanimous pick of the party’s parliamentary board after Vajpayee cited ill-health for his inability to lead it any more.

Soon after BJP president Rajnath Singh announced the parliamentary board’s decision, senior leaders including Murli Manohar Joshi and Jaswant Singh came up to Advani and offered him sweets. Rajnath Singh garlanded Advani.

In brief comments to the press at the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road in the city’s heart, a sombre Advani said: “I express my gratitude to the BJP and its president Rajnath Singh and my old colleague and former prime minister Atalji for the responsibility they have delegated to me. I pray to god to grant me strength to discharge this responsibility successfully.”

The announcement drew sharp reactions from the ruling Congress party and its allies.

Congress general secretary B.K Hari Prasad told IANS: “Advani and his party have always rejected Mahatma Gandhi’s message of secularism. He went a step further and declared (Pakistan founder) Mohammed Ali Jinnah a great secularist. That was the last day he should have hoped to become prime minister of this country.”

Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Nilotpal Basu added: “The people of this country will never let him become the prime minister.”

Besides Advani, six BJP leaders attended the parliamentary board meeting that lasted about 20 minutes. They included Rajnath Singh, Jaswant Singh, Joshi, Arun Jaitley, M. Venkaiah Naidu as well as Ananth Kumar.

Rajnath Singh explained what transpired at the meeting.

“Lok Sabha elections are not too far away. Therefore, through a consensus, we all agreed that Advani should lead the party.

“I had also met Atajlji and I read out a message from him… He said that for health reasons it was difficult for him to lead the party any further and so it was only proper that Advaniji should lead the party.”

Rajnath Singh added: “Advaniji and Atalji have been two pillars of our public life, they have been together for (decades). They have given a great stature to politics in India.”

It was a moment the Karachi-born Advani’s supporters had been waiting for since he came to head the BJP in 1986, two years after its humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections that fetched it only two seats.

By 1988-89, he gave it a distinct identity by plunging into the emotive campaign to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

That movement ended in the mosque razing Dec 6, 1992, a watershed event that irrevocably linked Advani – a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak – with hardline Hindutva ideology. Ironically it made him a political liability to the BJP’s allies.

In the process, when the BJP got an opportunity to form its first national government in 1996, Vajpayee, with his liberal image, took the saddle. Although that government fell after 13 days, Vajpayee again won the backing of his party and allies to become prime minister in 1998 and then in 1999. He was the first non-Congress leader to rule India for five years.

All along, Advani remained under the shadow of Vajpayee, even when he was the deputy prime minister from 2003 until the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was voted out in May 2004.

BJP leaders were ecstatic over Monday’s decision to pitchfork Advani in the driver’s seat, more so ahead of the crucial assembly elections starting Tuesday in Gujarat, whose Gandhinagar constituency he represents in the Lok Sabha.

Asked if the decision had the backing of the RSS, BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said: “We are an ideological parivar (family). Once we take decisions, it is the decision of everybody.”

Javadekar denied that it was a hurried move.

“It has been done at the right time. It will give tremendous boost to the party cadres all over the country,” he added.

In October, when the BJP’s National Executive met in Bhopal, there were strong indications that Advani would be declared the next prime ministerial candidate.

But in a dramatic turn, Rajnath Singh read out a message from Vajpayee who said he was “little unwell” but hoped to recover soon and be with his colleagues.

Since then, however, Vajpayee has hardly been seen publicly. But Advani, after losing party presidency following his controversial 2005 visit to the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Pakistan, has been leading from the front.

BJP leaders feel Advani has the capability to set the national agenda, and indeed credit him with doing so ever since his 1989 ‘rath yatra’ in support of the Ayodhya campaign that led to his arrest in Bihar – and the fall of the V.P. Singh National Front government.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who continues to enjoy the strong backing of Advani, was the chief organiser of that Somnath-to-Ayodhya yatra.

India’s next parliamentary elections are due in 2009 but growing fissures between the Congress-led government and its Communist allies over the India-US nuclear deal have given rise to the possibility of early polls.