The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Can’t find a nominee' Dial Najma
Students bid farewell to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at a school in Ahmedabad on Monday. Kalam will address the nation on Tuesday, his last day in office. The address will be telecast on all Doordarshan channels from 7pm to 8pm, an official release said. All India Radio will broadcast his address, followed by a Hindi translation, on all its channels from 7.30pm. (PTI)

New Delhi, July 23: Until Saturday, the BJP had no candidate for Vice-President in sight.

But unfazed by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s humiliating defeat to Pratibha Patil, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani felt the party must contest the vice-presidential election even if it were to lose.

The veterans concluded that the BJP must restate its position as the principal Opposition party and not become a shrinking violet. The leaders recalled how in 2003, the Congress, too, had put up a fight and lost after several from its ranks voted for Shekhawat.

There was another reason why the BJP stepped into the fray. The leaders saw a chance to bring together the NDA, which has been in tatters since the presidential poll. But where was the candidate'

The BJP initially sounded out Charanjit Singh Atwal, the Akali Dal MP who is the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha. It is believed that Atwal, who in the BJP’s view had the double advantage of being a Sikh (a minority) and a Dalit, joyfully accepted the offer.

He spoke to other NDA leaders but made the cardinal mistake of not seeking party chief Parkash Singh Badal’s permission. When Badal heard of it, he was furious with Atwal and the BJP leaders for not taking him into confidence. Atwal’s name was shot down.

Najma Heptullah had been on top of the BJP’s mind from the start. But as late as on Friday, she had told journalists that she was not interested in “fighting a losing battle”.

The BJP’s rationale was that like Atwal, Najma had two major pluses: she was a woman and a Muslim. Some party leaders, though, are believed to have argued that with the country having already got its first woman President, a woman Vice-President no longer held symbolic value.

But the leaders felt it expedient to have a Muslim because gestures such as these could help the party shed its “anti-minority” image. This was the argument that had persuaded the BJP five years ago to endorse A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s candidacy to try and blunt the widespread criticism after the Gujarat violence.

But after Najma openly expressed her reservations — she later claimed TV channels had “misquoted” her — the BJP was in a soup. Other names were considered, such as those of Sangh Priya Gautam, a veteran Ambedkarite and Sharad Joshi, a leader from Maharashtra, but with no considerable seriousness.

The idea of backing Rasheed Masood, the “third front” candidate, was rejected primarily because the BJP was furious with the Samajwadi Party for not backing Shekhawat.

The other reason that made it untenable for the BJP to back Masood was his opposition to the singing of Vande Mataram, which he restated immediately after his name was announced. “It was the Samajwadi Party’s way of snubbing us,” said a BJP leader.

So Advani worked on a “reluctant” Najma, who is reportedly close to his family.

Sources said she was told that Shekhawat’s name had been proposed for the presidential election in keeping with a tradition that the Vice-President should be elevated. Najma was also told that it was not as though Shekhawat was “more qualified for the post” than she was.

Conceding that the numbers were against her, Advani told Najma that her candidacy was meant more to project her as the BJP’s only weighty Muslim leader. “She has no competition in that sense after Sikander Bakht’s death,” said a source.

The others, like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain, were “clearly not in the same league” as Najma, the sources said.

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