Nitish Kumar wants a say in who will lead the BJP, and therefore, the NDA in the next elections. Balasaheb Thackeray of the Shiv Sena has thrown his two bits in and now endorsed Sushma Swaraj for the role. The BJP itself has been coy about naming its PM candidate, thanks to internal rivalry within the party.
A new kind of federalism is at play in the opposition NDA coalition where any leader of the alliance will have to face an ally’s potential veto first. This shows that the BJP begins its 2014 campaign in a weakened state, since it cannot afford at this stage to embroil itself in a leadership controversy when the focus is on targeting the Congress over corruption, including the coal blocks allocation scam (Coalgate).
An open endorsement by Thackeray Sr of Swaraj and the covert blackball by Nitish Kumar for the candidacy of Narendra Modi mean that the BJP’s efforts to put the Congress on the mat will be challenged by its own internal coalition compulsions.
The BJP has been an ardent advocate of federalism when it comes to centre-state relations. However, the issue has come back to bite it even before it can think of regaining power.
The problem for the BJP is that it cannot force its allies to back off on the issue till the time is more convenient for it. The party is now more concerned about coming the crucial elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
The official response on Thackeray’s comments on the suitability of Swaraj is limited to reiterating its old defensive position that the party is blessed to have so many able leaders capable of being No 1.
NDA convener Sharad Yadav provided some relief to the BJP when he said that the leadership issue can be decided after the elections. This position is in line with what the RSS too thinks. It would prefer to go to the polls under a collective leadership and decide on the PM position after the elections. There are, however, a good number of senior BJP leaders who feel that the issue should be decided before the next general elections.
The party is also wondering why Thackeray Sr batted for Swaraj. He said in a Saamna interview that "at present, there is only one person who is intelligent, brilliant - Sushma Swaraj. I have said this many times. She would be a great choice for the PM's post. She is a deserving, intelligent woman. She would deliver a great performance.”
More than the endorsement of Swaraj, what surprised leaders in the BJP and NDA was the stress on the word “only”, meaning a negation of Narendra Modi or even Arun Jaitley. In the past, the Sena chief had been lavish in his praise of Modi. It was thus assumed that he would back his candidature.
While no one knows exactly what Thackeray had in mind, BJP insiders speculate that his statement has more to do with the Uddhav-Raj Thackeray rivalry in becoming his political heir in Maharastra politics. Modi and Raj have been developing good ties, particularly after Raj’s week-long visit to Gujarat. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief was given a warm welcome in the state by Modi. Raj, in turn, had been full of praise for Modi. This apparently did not go down well with Thackeray Sr and Uddhav and their view of Modi changed after that.
Secondly, Modi too is considered a Hindutva icon like the Sena chief and a Prime Ministerial position for Modi would take away that USP from Thackeray Sr.
Sushma had met Thackeray last week during her Mumbai visit. That meeting left a lasting impression in the Sena patriarch’s mind. On the other hand, the Modi-Sushma relationship has been strained at times. The stress had surfaced during the last Gujarat assembly elections. Swaraj has also had a strained relationship with BJP President Nitin Gadkari.
BJP insiders thus wonder if Thackeray’s endorsement is sending a veiled message that he should not be ignored in the leadership sweepstakes?
Thackeray has also lately not been happy with LK Advani and had criticised him for his blogpost on the possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP government in 2014. One insider says Advani did not call on Thackeray during his recent illness, even though he had occasion to visit Mumbai on some occasions.
Thackeray also does not share a great equation with Arun Jaitley, another PM hopeful. Jaitley, on the other hand, has excellent equations with Nitish Kumar and Akali Dal chief Prakash Singh Badal.
By virtue of being Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma is a top contender should the BJP come to the power.
Nitish Kumar’s arguments on the subject hold relevance. “The NDA should declare its candidate in advance. This leader should be acceptable to every constituent of the alliance. To me, the leader of the coalition should have secular credentials. It should be someone who has absolute faith in democratic values. In a multi-religious and multi-lingual country like ours, the leader should not have rough edges in his personality. An alliance can win the confidence of the people only if the leader is seen as accommodating”, Nitish had said in an interview to The Economic Times.
While this is taken as a clear negation of Modi, it is also taken as endorsement of a certain BJP leader.
Around all these debates, former BJP President Rajnath Singh is sitting quietly. He could be another dark horse when it comes to the reckoning.