POLITICS

Could Venkaiah Naidu, Loyal BJP Man, 'Re-Script' The Vice Presidential Role?

A publicist par excellence

17/07/2017 9:38 PM IST | Updated 17/07/2017 9:39 PM IST
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His stentorian voice dropped by several decibels just once. That was on October 18, 2004 when he announced he would quit as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, citing his wife, Usha's illness as the reason and the need to spend more time with her. "My resignation is the result of an inner discussion and consultation with my conscience," he declared at a presser in the BJP headquarter.

M Venkaiah Naidu's dramatic proclamation did not surprise his BJP colleagues because it was coming for a while. First, under his leadership, the party lost the Lok Sabha election that May to the Congress-led coalition. Months later, it was beaten by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party in the Maharashtra polls. The BJP rarely gives losers a long rope, impatient as it is with racing to the finishing line. Naidu had to make way for LK Advani's return at the helm.

Not that the decision upset Naidu because he was an integral part of the Advani-headed core team that dominated the BJP's policy-and-decision-making apparatuses for years. His fealty to Advani, who mentored his rise in Delhi, was so strong that in June 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the NDA Prime Minister, was out of the country, Naidu, who was then the BJP president, told the press that the 2004 Lok Sabha election would be led not just by Vajpayee but also Advani. Naidu's co-mascots strategy stunned many in the BJP barring the Advani loyalists. He described Vajpayee as the "vikas purush" (development man) and Advani as the "loh purush" (iron man).

But his words so swirled the waters that as soon as Vajpayee returned, he famously told an audience gathered at his official residence for a function to felicitate his foreign trip that while he was "neither tired nor retired, but under Advani's leadership, the party will march towards victory (in the next election)." Vajpayee's remark was a put-down of Naidu.

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A chastened Naidu tried to make amends by publicly telling Vajpayee that "you are not only the leader of India, the government and the NDA, but you are also the leader of Venkaiah Naidu and Advani".

It's edifying to recall history on special moments such as the one today when the BJP's parliamentary board nominated Naidu as the NDA's Vice-President candidate.

Naidu learnt his lesson from the brief but inopportune face-off with Vajpayee. In the BJP's tumultuous prelude to naming Narendra Modi as the candidate for prime-ministership, he remained neutral, circumspectly distancing himself from Advani who had positioned himself as a challenger of sorts to Modi.

In his stint in the Modi cabinet, Naidu became the PM's most emphatic cheerleader, using his penchant for coining alliterations, using rhymes and composing slogans sometimes to embarrassing effect. His acronym "MODI" was explained as Modi, a "Maker of Developed India".

He began as the parliamentary affairs minister and used his cross-party affiliations, principally with the MPs from the southern states, to muster support for the passage of crucial legislations, especially in the Rajya Sabha where the NDA remains short of a majority. When his long-term friend and associate S Jaipal Reddy, a senior minister in the UPA government, needed a house in Lutyen's Delhi to which he was not entitled because he lost the last Lok Sabha election, Naidu prevailed on a BJP MP to forfeit his accommodation for Congressman Reddy.

Left to himself, his associates said he would have begun doing the spadework for Modi's return in 2019 as a publicist par excellence straight away.

However, he was tough-as-nails when he embarked on an exercise to force the ex-MPs out of their official bungalows shortly after the Modi government came in. Even a self-fancied heavyweight like Ajit Singh, who heads Uttar Pradesh's Rashtriya Lok Dal and derives his cachet from being a Choudhary Charan Singh legatee, was not spared.

After the last cabinet shuffle, Naidu was moved to Information and Broadcasting and Urban Development and he embraced both the portfolios with enthusiasm, to the reported chagrin of his I&B deputy minister, Rajyavardhan Rathore, whose role diminished under Naidu.

For the past few months, the buzz in the BJP was Naidu was being considered for the posts of the President and the Vice-President. Those close to him demurred at the suggestion that he was keen on the posts. Their contention was Naidu enjoyed being in the thick of politics, organisational and electoral, to move away to a constitutional office. Left to himself, his associates said he would have begun doing the spadework for Modi's return in 2019 as a publicist par excellence straight away. Indeed, a note from his team today indicated he would not settle for a sedentary job. "Those who know Sri Naidu assert that given his energy and enthusiasm, Shri Naidu may even re-script the office and role of the Vice-President in promoting national unity and integration for the larger cause of nation-building," the note claimed.

Naidu's legislative pro-activism and of course, his booming voice will certainly resonate in Parliament when he presides over the Rajya Sabha as the chairperson in the coming months. A warm host, the annual lunches he organised at his residence for the media with the choicest non-vegetarian Andhra Pradesh fare were memorable. He recalled that he was the first BJP leader to depart from the hallowed "shakahari" (vegetarian) culinary tradition the party followed in its meetings and served up fish, fowl and meat. Naidu recounted that the first time he did it in Vijayawada, the mutton, fish and chicken on the table emptied out in no time.

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