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Desperately seeking Aapoliticians

Dec. 14: Established parties appear to have been shuddered by the underlying message of Arvind Kejriwal’s electoral raid on Delhi — save politics from politicians.

The rabble-rousing anti-neta campaign by Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has touched a chord that traditional political parties find troubling and opened a new imagination of leadership they may be scrambling to imitate.

Recent efforts by the Congress and the BJP to enlist such entities as technocrat Nandan Nilekani and cricketer Sourav Ganguly could be part of an effort to make up for shredded credibility by borrowing from beyond the political basket.

Such forays had been made earlier, too, but rarely did they coincide with a deep disenchantment with traditional politicians — something that has been articulated by the AAP’s debut in Delhi.

Several of the AAP’s legislators won not because of their political experience but because of the sheer lack of it — a television reporter, an anonymous social worker, an unsung commando who was part of the effort to fight off the 26/11 Mumbai attack and became disillusioned by how little of the promised incentives came his way.

Another telling piece of statistics: the AAP had fielded 13 rebels from the BJP and the Congress — 10 of the 13 lost.

“This election is a slap in the face of traditional politicians,” bragged Kumar Vishwas, the AAP’s frontman. “People have sent out the message they are sick of the breed of netas who have been taking turns to rule. They want new faces, new, unspoilt people….”

At the moment, the Congress’s “credible leadership” shortfall appears far worse than the BJP’s, which is in high campaign gear with an announced prime ministerial candidate in Narendra Modi.

The Congress has come out wrong-footed, unprepared to back Manmohan Singh for a third time and unable to name a successor. The only reason Rahul Gandhi has not been named could be that he himself remains undecided.

Speculation has swirled in the vacuum over Nandan Nilekani, head of the ambitious and successful “Aadhaar” effort.

Nilekani has not denied reports he will be the Congress candidate from South Bangalore, a seat held by the BJP’s Ananth Kumar for a record five times. But word has begun to float on Delhi’s power corridors that Nilekani could be to Rahul what Manmohan was to Sonia Gandhi — a man to front government while political power was exercised from behind the prime ministerial throne.

The one great drawback to Nilekani’s choice is obvious — a second successive apolitical person as pick for head of government. But analysts also count Nilekani’s positives in the “anti-neta” mood that prevails. He is not a quintessential politician. He is taint-free. He has a lauded and documented vision of India’s future enunciated in the best-selling Imagining India. He, most of all, could rival Modi in wooing the new aspirational India.

Speculation over Nilekani has not attracted comment from him or the Congress leadership — there is no endorsement of reports and no denial. Could it be that between the two lies a possibility?

The BJP has firmed up its leadership but it could still be looking to shore up credibility by demonstrating it is able to attract better non-political talent. Its overtures to Sourav were back in the news a day after it inducted into its ranks two retired bureaucrats — former Union home secretary R.K. Singh and former petroleum secretary R.S. Pandey.

The BJP is looking at the former cricketer as a potential Lok Sabha candidate. BJP sources said they would want Sourav to contest from an urban constituency.

These sources let on that four months ago, Sourav had called on BJP general secretary Varun Gandhi in Delhi. The call-on was arranged by “non-political interlocutors” from Bengal. Varun is the BJP’s central minder (prabhari) for Bengal along with Siddharth Nath Singh, a national executive member.

A source close to Varun said: “Sourav candidly told him the BJP does not have much of a base in Bengal. Varun agreed and replied that the BJP has a leadership vacuum that he could fill. Sourav was told he could fight the polls but he was not committal.”

Sourav apparently didn’t follow up, save for wishing Varun on Diwali. Today, after the Anandabazar Patrika quoted Sourav as saying he had received an offer and would respond “very soon”, which was picked up by TV channels, Varun phoned the former cricketer who is out of town.

Sourav reportedly said he would get back to him once he returned. But the source felt Varun was not “reading overmuch” in the speculation.

Singh, the Bengal co-minder, was less tentative. “He and the BJP are equally keen to reach an understanding…. Once Sourav’s induction is finalised, our party president and parliamentary board will decide if he will contest. So far, there is no offer of a Lok Sabha ticket from us,” Singh claimed.

Sourav did not make any public statement today.

CPM leader and former minister Asok Bhattacharya said: “I had sent an SMS to Sourav, inquiring about reports that he may become a BJP candidate in the Lok Sabha elections. Sourav called me and said Varun Gandhi had requested him to join a few months ago but he had refused. Sourav asserted he had no interest in joining politics.”

Former cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin is an elected Congress MP while Sachin Tendulkar is a nominated member to the Rajya Sabha.

Prakash, a 25-year-old AAP legislator who quit his job as an assistant engineer in a multinational and defeated Congress stalwart Buta Singh’s son in Delhi, declined to comment on the BJP’s overtures to Sourav. But Prakash, who does not use a surname, said people wanted “aam, not khaas (special) aadmi”.

Lateral entries have not always been a win-win. The Trinamul Congress’s troubles with some members of the civil society are well documented.

Over the past several years, the BJP drew up a blueprint that looked at an “after power, what?” scenario because early on its top guns, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, reckoned that being in government wasn’t the same as steering a rathyatra or speaking fancifully.

Advani used to despair that the BJP’s talent crunch could reduce it to a dud in government. He drafted journalist Arun Shourie, former bureaucrats T.N. Chaturvedi and Vijai Kapoor among others, diplomat N.N. Jha and a host of former army generals to fill the “shortfall”.

The BJP had picked up leaves from the Congress’s annals. Rajiv Gandhi was the first politician whose gaze travelled beyond poky little party offices to an uncharted sector (in the 1980s): corporate India.

When he became Prime Minister in 1984, his key aides were Arun Nehru and Arun Singh. Nehru was one of the youngest presidents of Jenson & Nicholson while his namesake was a marketing strategist at Reckitt Colman. Rajiv’s team was supplemented with talent drawn from the US, the star being Sam Pitroda, who became his technology adviser. IIT and MIT alumnus Jairam Ramesh was part of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s secretariat.

Bollywood perennially fascinated the Congress and the BJP alike. If the Congress netted Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna and Govinda, the BJP bagged Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini and Dharmendra.

In 1991, when the BJP figured out that power at the Centre was not out of bounds if it pushed that bit harder, it foraged film and TV studios for candidates, picked the main protagonists of the hottest tele-serial of that era, Ramayan, and ensured they won.

Those that came later like Smriti Irani — who was India’s best known TV “bahu” — have evolved into full-fledged politicians and valued election canvassers. Many more such may be on their way, cleaning up the soiled pipelines for politicians.