May 16: Virtually the only blot on the BJP’s dream-come-true election performance today came from Amritsar, where key strategist Arun Jaitley failed to surmount the heaviest of odds in his debut Lok Sabha contest.
The Rajya Sabha leader of the Opposition, who is one of Modi’s closest friends, played down his disappointment saying it was “a drop” in the “ocean” of his party’s massive triumph.
Jaitley had been tipped to hold the No. 2 slot in a Modi-led dispensation, possibly as finance minister. But the senior leader, who could have easily won from Delhi or Jammu, seems to have made a mistake by choosing Amritsar, where he went with a massive disadvantage.
Amritsar’s outgoing BJP member, Navjot Singh Sidhu, was extremely popular and the voters knew he had been sacrificed because ally Akali Dal was opposed to him.
Perhaps the Akalis, the lead partner in Punjab’s ruling coalition, could have offset this had Sonia Gandhi not compounded their problem by fielding the strongest possible candidate, former chief minister “Captain” Amarinder Singh.
Amarinder’s entry brought Jaitley’s outsider status into focus and the Akalis had to work for every single vote in the rural areas. While Jaitley enjoyed goodwill among the urban middle class, who wanted him in Modi’s cabinet, the villages hardly knew him.
Also, the Akalis themselves faced strong anti-incumbency sentiments, most of all in Amritsar which is home to the most unpopular among the ruling politicians, Bikram Singh Majithia.
Nandan Nilekani at the Bangalore South counting centre on Friday; (below)
Bangalore News Photos
In most other Punjab constituencies, the Akalis were able to neutralise the Congress as the Aam Aadmi Party ate into anti-incumbency votes, polling two to three lakh votes. But the AAP’s Amritsar candidate received just over 82,000 votes. Jaitley lost by 102,775 votes.
Jaitley has been Modi’s most steadfast ally in Delhi and cushioned him against party rivals. When Modi moved to the national capital in the early 1990s, Jaitley helped him pick his way through its political labyrinths. It was Jaitley who pronounced six months ago that the “hand of history” had touched Modi.
Sources differed on whether the Amritsar defeat would dent Jaitley’s chances of a ministerial berth.
Some recalled that when Jaswant Singh lost in 1998, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had been keen to make him finance minister, was forced to nominate him as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission instead. Jaswant was later brought into the Rajya Sabha and subsequently appointed finance minister.
In 1998, Vajpayee’s political confidant Pramod Mahajan too lost the Lok Sabha polls. Vajpayee inducted him as his political secretary in the PMO and later got him a Rajya Sabha berth before absorbing him into his cabinet.
Another source, however, contended that the 1998 examples were not “precedents” and Jaitley could be inducted straightaway when Modi formed his cabinet.
For one thing, Jaitley is already a member of the Upper House. For another, efforts have begun to project the Amritsar defeat as the result of a “grave error of judgement”, implying it should not be a hurdle to Jaitley’s induction.
“Some of us tried to persuade Jaitley to contest from New Delhi or Jaipur but he perhaps thought the AAP would be a thorn in his side in the capital,” the source said.
“The Akalis worked on him to have a shot at Amritsar, saying he wouldn’t even need to be present — they would take care of the campaign.”
Asked about his future plans, Jaitley told PTI: “I have no preference. If I’m asked to do organisational work, I will be the happiest.”
He denied he was saying he wouldn’t be part of the cabinet. “Nobody is thinking about this at the moment. The party takes the final call.”
On the choice of Amritsar, he said: “It was a challenging seat, we always knew. There appeared to be some local factors which were creating an adverse (mood)... but we thought we might make it.”
Amid the euphoria of the sweep in Bihar, the Bhagalpur defeat has struck a jarring note for the BJP. Senior leader Shahnawaz Hussain, the party’s Muslim face and two-time Bhagalpur MP, lost the seat to the RJD’s Bulo Mandal by just 9,485 votes.