The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Balance shifts from Atal to party

New Delhi, May 29: A year ago, when a junior functionary in the BJP had to be removed or appointed, it was normal for the party president to rush to 7 Race Course Road.

Before speaking his mind, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would screen the names sent by Kushabhau Thakre, Bangaru Laxman and K. Jana Krishnamurthi, the past presidents.

The same drill was followed for candidates who wished to contest elections. Despite occasional assertions by Thakre or Krishnamurthi, the party was seen as a “meek appendage” of the Vajpayee dispensation.

That in itself was a turnaround as Vajpayee had started in government as a mukhouta, or mask.

Now, with the general election just over a year away, the relationship appears to have come a full circle.

“The first three years of the NDA government belonged to Vajpayee. He has outlived his utility for us and now it is the others’ turn to run the show,” said a senior leader.

Asked who the “others” were, the answer was deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani and party chief M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Under their stewardship, the focus of political activity has shifted from 7 Race Course Road to 11 Ashoka Road, the party headquarters.

Such has been the shift that BJP sources believe Vajpayee’s statement at a book release last Thursday — “at least as Prime Minister, I get invited to such functions” — was not as innocuous as it might seem.

One example of the power shift was the Cabinet shuffle when Advani and Naidu discarded Vajpayee’s Manali blueprint.

Not only could Vajpayee not induct Mamata Banerjee, Farooq Abdullah and a DMK nominee, the party saw to it that allies did not get any part of its share of the power pie.

Sources spoke of how Vajpayee’s efforts to bolster his position by enlisting finance minister Jaswant Singh and defence minister George Fernandes failed when both gave in to Advani.

“In retrospect, the Prime Minister should not have gone in for consultations or even spoken his mind to the press at Manali,” said a source.

Another example is the peace initiative with Pakistan. If Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship in Srinagar, his subsequent assertions of no talks unless cross-border terrorism stopped have been dictated by pressure from Advani and Naidu with the RSS prompting.

India’s stand on Iraq was also enunciated by the party at its Indore national executive in April.

The go-slow on economic issues — shelving of value-added tax and silence on public sector divestment — reflects the shift.

All organisational changes are finalised by Advani and Naidu without bringing Vajpayee into the picture.

Sources cited three reasons for the change: the coming election, Naidu’s personality and, of course, a more assertive Advani.

Naidu is being rated as the most pro-active BJP president after Murli Manohar Joshi. With the RSS he has formalised the party’s relationship under a mechanism that ensures regular meetings. Besides, Naidu has a personal equation with RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi.

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