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No place for Team Vajpayee leftovers in Team modi

Narendra Modi needs to present by the New Year his Shadow Cabinet, indicating his choices for key portfolios such as Home, External Affairs, Finance and Defence.

MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 28th Dec 2013

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi waits before addressing supporters at an election rally in Mumbai last Sunday. REUTERS

hroughout Mumbai on Christmas Day, huge posters and hoardings came up, reminding people that this was the 89th birthday of Atal Behari Vajpayee. For those who remained indoors, most newspapers helpfully carried full page advertisements conveying the same message. Have those in charge of the BJP forgotten the fact that Vajpayee lost the 2004 elections and soon afterwards, was never directly heard from again? In a context where the 2014 elections will be decided by the preferences of the 30-and-under voters, to expect that an expensive media blitz featuring Vajpayee would attract any votes, except from the advertising managers of major newspapers, ignores the reality that the actual focus of the voter is Narendra Modi, who is engaged in seeking to "Modify" the BJP. His enemies within and outside the BJP try and spread the perception that it is the "Old" BJP (sometimes called the Delhi-dominated BJP) that has succeeded in modifying Modi, rather than the other way about. With each visit to Delhi, where he appears in photo-ops together with the Delhi-based leaders, who have lost election after election since 2004, efforts are intensifying to convey the message to the voter that the BJP remains where it was ten years ago. The hope of those eager to stop the BJP from coming to office is that more and more voters will believe that it is the new kid on the block, Arvind Kejriwal, who represents change, and not Modi.

While the Aam Aadmi Party mascot is derided by the Ashoka Road headquarters of the BJP, in weeks to come, it will be seen whether he can amass a following throughout the urban constituencies that the BJP needs to sweep in order to ensure that Narendra Damodardas Modi gets sworn in as the Prime Minister of India.

Both the Leaders of the Opposition (chosen after approval from RSS headquarters in Nagpur) have been based in Delhi throughout their political lives, and come from the same social and geographic background. As for L.K. Advani, if it is to be assumed that the EVM machines functioned in a flawless manner, the 2009 defeat revealed him to be untenable as a leadership option before the voter. After Manmohan Singh, there is no longer an appetite within the country for another 80-plus individual to take over the physical and political demands of the office. Advani lost his best chance at the job in 2003, when Vajpayee offered to resign because of reports that his health was deteriorating, reports that subsequently proved to be accurate.

Except perhaps for the previous Pope, it is almost impossible to find anyone willing to demit high office — or the chance of that — no matter what his or her age or state of health. Vajpayee's may be called the BJP 1. 0, a party whose government was seen to function in many respects as a diluted version of Nehru's Congress party. Apart from the surrender to terrorists at Kandahar and the lack of any action except posturing after the LeT attack on Parliament, Vajpayee went in for two unilateral ceasefires in Kashmir that proved a boon to the terror groups operating in the Valley. After the 1998 Pokhran explosion, he very quickly did an Indira Gandhi, who too refused to follow up Pokhran I in 1974 with the additional tests needed to improve a nuclear warhead. Vajpayee declared a unilateral ban on further testing, thereby throwing away the only card India had to force through a nuclear deal on less than humiliating conditions. Aware that India may bark hard, but has the softest of bites, even the cosmetic concessions won by Manmohan Singh from George W. Bush in their 2005 nuclear handshake have been reversed by President Obama.

Vajpayee's BJP 1.0 lost in 2004, as did L.K. Advani's BJP 2.0 in 2009. It may, therefore, be premature for the mood at Ashoka Road to be the same as it was ten years ago, that victory is a foregone conclusion. The party is now led by Rajnath Singh, who has the distinction of having lost UP for the BJP while he was its Chief Minister, and the country while he was president of the party. Narendra Modi was anointed the PM candidate not because of backroom intrigue at the top, but because of a groundswell of support at the base. He now needs to show that Team Modi is not simply a collection of leftovers from Team Vajpayee (almost all of whom got absorbed in Team Advani, thereby ensuring that the latter failed to give an impression of change in a country eager for that quality). The Prime Ministerial nominee of the BJP needs to present, by the New Year, his Shadow Cabinet, indicating his choices for key portfolios such as Home, External Affairs, Finance and Defence. Will Modi pick unorthodox choices for these portfolios, or — as his detractors hope — continue with the remnants of Team Vajpayee? If the latter, then the voter is unlikely to expect genuine change from a switch from Congress to the BJP.Image 2nd

Interestingly, since Modi took charge, within the BJP there have been those asking for a radical change in economic policy, such as the Subramanian Swamy-Nitin Gadkari call for a zero rate of income-tax. While a zero rate may be too ambitious, there is little doubt that a three-rate system of 20%, 10% and 5% income tax — with the exemption limit for payment of tax pegged at Rs 5 lakh a year — will generate more revenue, exactly the way P. Chidambaram's 1997 lower tax rates did.

The economy needs less regulation, lower interest rates and lower rates of tax. While confidence in Narendra Modi is high, a similar enthusiasm is not visible for those who were in the Vajpayee Council of Ministers. They could neither make a dent in black money secreted abroad or succeed in getting Ottavio Quattrocchi back to India from Malaysia. Team Vajpayee was the best thing that happened to the Congress, just as the incessant press conferences of the Delhi-based BJP leaders drowned out the linkage of Harsh Vardhan with the one man who counted, Narendra Modi. In Delhi at least, voters saw the Aam Aadmi Party as being more opposed to the Congress than a BJP defined in the national capital not by Modi but by its Delhi-based leaders.

The performance of the BJP in Parliament has been less than stellar. Laws which ought never to have been passed were waved through, often by the expedient of walkouts. Tax measures that hurt key BJP voter segments were allowed to pass unopposed. Individuals such as Ram Jethmalani (subsequently drummed out of the party) and Subramanian Swamy were far more effective in articulating public anger and disquiet than the gaggle of Delhi-based leaders whose primary political activity consists of 30 minutes before a television camera. With supporters such as these, Narendra Modi has little need of critics.

Modi's ascent in politics represents a complete break from the durbar politics of Delhi, and for such a switch to be effective, he needs to locate and to showcase a team that shares his vision and his drive. He needs to show that it is now BJP 3.0, a party for the 21st century. He needs to present before the nation not only himself but the new avatar of the BJP, Team Modi as a whole. Only thus can his party avoid nationally what happened in Delhi, that the BJP emerges as the single largest party, but then has to sit on the Opposition benches.

 
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