New Delhi, Jan. 21: Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri’s name may not spring to mind as a bellwether of Indian politics, yet his choice as the BJP candidate for Uttarakhand chief minister underlines an increasingly obvious trend.
It’s how successful the BJP has been in attracting professionals and tapping their talent in contrast to the Congress and the Left.
Khanduri, a retired major general, has no connection with the RSS or any of its fronts that have spawned and nurtured most BJP leaders.
His only “link” with politics, if it can be so described, was that he is the nephew of Congress stalwart Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. But the family lineage didn’t draw the soldier to the grand old party.
Khanduri is just one of the army of professionals who have joined the BJP since its rise in the ’90s, carving niches for themselves by virtue of their professional, educational and social skills.
Arun Shourie’s St Stephen’s and Syracuse degrees, his feisty stint in journalism and polemical skills endeared him to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. He went on to become the divestment minister in the NDA government.
Pramod Mahajan once joked that Shourie was the “natural” candidate for the job because were he (Mahajan) to get it, people would speak of the “notes stashed away in Swiss banks”.
This was one of Khanduri’s advantages, too, as surface transport minister in the Vajpayee government when he oversaw the showpiece highway project.
Despite the huge sums involved in the contracts, there was never a whiff of scandal involving him. Rather, he is remembered across the political establishment for his performance.
“Khanduri is a good example of how a novice to the political system and administration turned the apparent disadvantage to his advantage,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist.
Mehta believes that the leaning the professionals have shown for the BJP has to do with the Sangh-BJP’s “deep roots” within the middle class.
Such examples abound in the BJP. Bureaucrat Vijai Kapoor became Delhi’s lieutenant governor; 1971 war hero J.F.R. Jacob, who retired as a lieutenant general, was made a governor.
I.D. Swami, another bureaucrat, was picked by Advani to be junior home minister while investment adviser P.N. Vijay was chosen over Sangh darling Jagdish Shettigar to head the party’s economic cell. IIT graduate Manohar Parrikar became Goa chief minister.
The star among the professionals was former diplomat Brajesh Mishra. He became principal secretary to the Prime Minister in the NDA government as well as national security adviser, and did the groundwork for Vajpayee’s pro-Pakistan overtures.
Yogendra Yadav, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, explains that the BJP, “being a younger party, had more vacancies at the top, especially for positions of governance”.
But that’s just half the story. BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad argues that the party’s ideology strikes a chord among middle-class professionals: “You will see a number of army generals gravitating towards the BJP. It is mainly because of our tough stand on terrorism, national security, etc.”
He also believes that the party’s “world view on economic reforms” has attracted “intellectuals and lawyers”.
“In the early years of its rise, the BJP offered an alternative to the established view on everything,” Yadav adds. “Here was a party with the courage to defy political correctness, whether on secularism or reservation. This view often blended with middle class and upper caste interests.”
The Congress has the perfect answer for the BJP: Manmohan Singh. Yet the economist and ex-bureaucrat has been an exception rather than the rule.
He was brought in not because of ideological affinity —rather, it was his mandate to steer the party, and the country, to a radically new course, first in economics and then in foreign affairs.
Leaving Singh aside, the only notable professionals to join the Congress in recent years have been the lawyers Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
Singhvi admitted the need to draft in more professionals: “I believe improving political standards must involve larger participation by those who have alternative vocations. It gives them the strength to combat populism in its negative aspects. It also sets a high level of merit and issue-based thinking.”
Mehta feels the Congress’s obsession with the “dynasty” often puts off professionals. “The party has one fixed point. It is hard for bureaucrats and intellectuals to cross the Lakshman rekha if the path to rise (involves) finding favour with a group.”
What of the CPM' The party has always been able to attract academics — such as Asim Dasgupta, Ashok Mitra and Malini Bhattacharya — but hasn’t had much luck with professionals.
“The upper echelons of officers have never found much in common with us,” explains party general secretary Prakash Karat. “There is a certain class approach and understanding that the BJP represents and with which many (of them) have affinity.”