The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Scandals swallow BJP’s B-team

New Delhi, Aug. 23: With the credibility of Pramod Mahajan, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar under a cloud, the BJP is worried its efforts to develop a second phalanx of leadership for the post-Vajpayee-Advani phase might come a cropper.

Mahajan and Naidu ranked high in the BJP’s pecking order after A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Kumar was seen as a potential leader for Karnataka. The party has now pinned its hopes, though half-heartedly, on Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie. But while all three are seen as “extremely articulate”, certain shortcomings are inescapable.

“Sushma is not from the RSS and that matters a great deal when somebody is considered for top posts. Besides, we don’t know how much of an organisational person she is. Jaitley is very good on TV, but does he have a mass base' The same goes for Shourie,” BJP sources said. Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh could have fit the bill but has been thrown out of the party, they added.

The allegation against Mahajan’s “involvement” in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder has been the biggest blow for the BJP. Not only was the parliamentary affairs minister rated high because of his “successful” management of the 24-party NDA coalition in the House and his ability to win friends in the Opposition, his oratory, organisational skills and “comfort level” with Mumbai industry were counted as his assets.

“He combines the best of Vajpayee and Advani,” said a senior leader who had criticised Mahajan in the past for “bringing” the “cell phone culture” to the BJP.

Privately, BJP sources said the party should have been more upfront in defending the “tainted” leaders. After the deputy Prime Minister’s clean chit to Mahajan and sports minister Uma Bharti’s claim that the statements of Madhu Sharma, wife of the main accused in the Shivani murder, were contradictory, the BJP had nothing to add.

“Even these statements seemed more like an effort to clear the air on her (Madhu’s) charge that the home ministry wanted to implicate Mahajan rather than defend him,” sources said.

A section of the BJP took a dim view of the “advice” given to Mahajan to file a criminal defamation suit against Madhu Sharma. “This appeared like a well-laid trap because it would have raked up more mud and shifted the focus entirely on him,” a leader said.

Sources close to Mahajan added that he would not file a suit in haste.

Like Naidu — who received support from Congress and Desam legislators in Andhra Pradesh after a regional paper wrote about his alleged taking of land meant for the landless — Mahajan is also reported to have got notes of sympathy from NDA leaders.

Opposition members from the Samajwadi Party are also reported to have called on him.

Although BJP sources stressed on the need for “solidarity in this hour of crisis”, no one appeared to be willing to take the initiative to go on the offensive. Sources pointed out that the “lacklustre” response was in contrast to the alacrity with which the BJP threw its weight behind Advani when he was implicated in the hawala scam.

The oft-repeated explanation for the “indifference” is the “rivalry” for the “third place”. A theory doing the rounds in the headquarters is that “vested interests” within the party were “at work” to pull down Mahajan as he was being seen as the “number three” in the government after the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

He was the only second-rung leader to be present in all the consultations.

Naidu had come in for censure when his predecessor K. Jana Krishnamurthi was summarily removed from the BJP president’s post in alleged violation of the party constitution. But sources felt that there was need to rally around him “if only to retrieve the party’s image”. “We have already lost one president (Bangaru Laxman) in a scam. We can’t afford to let this happen to another one,” sources said.

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