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Wanted for BJP: VP now, leader later

New Delhi, July 21: The BJP has an immediate problem — it has to find a vice-presidential candidate within 24 hours.

But a bigger problem looms around the corner: the party has to find a leader.

“We will have to face the questions raised by the presidential election squarely, otherwise the NDA will cease to exist by 2009,” said senior office-bearer Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Allies Mamata Banerjee, Bal Thackeray and H.D. Kumaraswamy deserted the BJP in the presidential election, as did prospective partners Samajwadi Party and Telugu Desam. But the unkindest cut came from its strongholds Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar where the BJP’s own MPs and MLAs voted against Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Elections are due in the first three states.

Shekhawat resigned as Vice-President this evening, and the BJP has not yet found a candidate who will contest the post for which nominations close on Monday. “We can’t zero in on a vice-presidential candidate,” a general secretary conceded.

Two nominees initially shortlisted — Najma Heptullah and Charanjit Singh Atwal — are reported to have said no. Najma, who joined the BJP before the 2004 polls after a successful stint in the Congress, was said to have been keen on contesting for President.

That leaves Sangh Priya Gautam, a Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, and Sharad Joshi, a farmer leader from Maharashtra, as probables. The NDA will take a call tomorrow.

But the other question — of finding a leader for the BJP — will be tougher to address. Sources admitted that despite RSS’s support, Rajnath Singh lacks the authority L.K. Advani had. “Advani was seen as a natural leader, eminently qualified not just to lead the party but the country as well. Despite his perceived hardline image, remember that Nitish Kumar and George Fernandes became our ally when he was the president,” a source said.

But Advani is believed to have lost the “cutting edge” after the Jinnah fiasco.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is seen as “unfit” for reasons of health and age.

“But as long as Advani and Vajpayee are around, it is difficult for a younger person to emerge as a leader in his or her own right,” said the source, pointing out how Advani’s handpicked nominees Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj had failed to come out of their mentor’s shadow.

Narendra Modi is rated high on charisma and mass following, but there are doubts about how effectively he can lead a team and work with the RSS — a must for survival in the Sangh parivar.

The BJP now appears resigned to the fact that unless another Advani or Vajpayee appears on the scene, it would be “tough” for the party to stay on as the nucleus of the National Democratic Alliance.

“Whoever we have has to compete with Sonia Gandhi who tops the popularity chart right now,” a source said.

BJP sources are not sure if the Trinamul Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) will back its vice-presidential candidate though they expect the Shiv Sena to come around.

Najma yesterday made it clear to journalists she did not want to contest for Vice-President, more so since it would be a “token” fight with the numbers stacked up against the NDA. The Akali Dal, its senior MP S.S. Dhindsa said, is not keen to field Lok Sabha Speaker Atwal for the same reason.

There was a view in the BJP that fielding Najma, who was the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson for three terms and had carved out a niche for herself as a spokesperson on gender, Muslim and West Asia issues, for President would cause a churning in the “secular” camp.

But she was ruled out because the “Hindutva hardliners” felt it was time to give a person of BJP-Sangh vintage a chance, a decision that is now being questioned by observers who believe Najma could have put up a better fight.

Asked to comment, Sushma said: “Under the circumstances, Shekhawat was our best bet.”

The only consolation for the BJP today was that it won the ADMK’s support.

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