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Venkaiah faces exit heat

New Delhi, June 7: Five days after he kicked off the controversy over who would lead the BJP in next year’s Lok Sabha elections, speculation is rife at the party headquarters on whether Venkaiah Naidu’s days as chief are numbered.

Well-placed sources said a decision is expected after Naidu’s mentor, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani — the man he said would be projected along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the party’s mascot — returns from his trip abroad on June 19.

The BJP brass, including Prime Minister Vajpayee, will go into a huddle at a four-day chintan baithak near Mumbai from June 17. The introspective session, which will also be attended by RSS leaders reportedly concerned at the turn of events, is expected to discuss Naidu’s future.

A section of the party has already expressed its view that rather than experiment with another “untested entity”, Advani should take up the job of party chief. “The Prime Minister has already declared that he will lead the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections. Rather than step in then to ready the party, Advani can take over the organisation right away and apply the necessary correctives,” said a source.

Naidu and his supporters have begun to fortify his position with “certificates” from appropriate quarters. It is said that RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan counselled him from his Nagpur base to focus more on the party’s ideology and principles and less on individuals. Naidu had described Vajpayee as vikash purush (development man) and Advani as lauh purush (iron man).

The RSS chief is believed to have told Naidu that, while it is important for political parties to project leaders, it is equally necessary to stress on ideology, principles and programmes.

On his part, Naidu has refused to join issue with human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who, in a television interview yesterday, said the BJP chief had “limited Vajpayee’s appeal to a small segment of political and economic development” by naming him vikas purush.

Sources close to Naidu claimed that Sudarshan’s message was as much a snub to Joshi as, perhaps, Naidu.

“This is a storm in a teacup. Why is so much being made of an issue that only involves the description of an individual and not ideology or principles' After all, nobody objected to Advani being called an iron man for over 10 years. If the BJP’s campaign theme will be development and governance, what is wrong in calling Vajpayee a vikas purush'” they asked.

Naidu is also keeping to a hectic schedule to give the impression that he has not been affected by the controversy. The BJP leader, who returned today from a zonal meeting at Guwahati, will set off for Ahmedabad tomorrow for a panchayat gathering and then to Chennai to chair a meeting of the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep party units.

His next stop is Rewa, where he would preside over a meeting of the Madhya Pradesh BJP executive. He would follow this up with a campaign committee meeting in Delhi and then go to Mumbai to address a BJP media workshop.

Sources said three factors could save Naidu. The first, according to them, is his proximity to RSS functionary Madan Das Devi. Second, the BJP’s unwillingness to risk a change before the five Assembly elections later this year, and, third, the need to prevent an impression from gaining ground that the party is making fall guys of people from the south.

Bangaru Laxman and K. Jana Krishnamurthi — Naidu’s predecessors — were from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, respectively. Neither lasted a full year.

On the flip side, it was pointed out that the BJP's history showed that anyone who crossed swords with Vajpayee was humbled: Kalyan Singh for allegedly sabotaging his election from Lucknow, KN Govindacharya for reportedly calling him a “mukhota” and minister of state Vijay Goel, who it is believed was shunted out of the PMO for indulging in factional politics.

Naidu, said sources, was one up on these individuals because he “dared” to take on Vajpayee “much more openly”. “On more than one occasion he told partymen that he has as much of a say in policy-making and ministerial appointments as Vajpayee. He even took credit for scuttling Mamata Banerji's reinduction in the cabinet recently,” they said.

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