As India readies itself to elect its 14th President next month, the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP, announced on Monday that Ram Nath Kovind, the Bihar governor, would be its presidential nominee. That has put to rest all speculation that Narendra Modi would be large-hearted enough to make party stalwart L K Advani the first citizen of India.
Clearly, Modi has forgotten that he owed his survival as chief minister of Gujarat in the aftermath of 2002 communal to the implacable support of Advani. What Modi did remember, however, was that Advani had the temerity to challenge his nomination as the prime ministerial candidate when the larger section of the Sangh Parivar had backed him.
Rajendra Prasad's and L K Advani's positions vis-à-vis the respective political establishments were similar... But Prasad remained a frontrunner in the presidential race because of the strong backing of Sardar Patel.
Modi, the Prime Minister and the supreme leader of the BJP, has done everything to sideline Advani in the last three years. How could one then expect Advani to be chosen as the presidential nominee of the party?
That would have been possible only if the BJP had a Vallabhbhai Patel in its ranks.
It is instructive to recollect the political slugfest involving the election of the first President of India to understand Patel's role.
We need to recall that that India's immediate post-independent history bore testimony to an indisputable fact: that had Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, had his way, then C Rajagopalachari—the then governor-general—not Rajendra Prasad, the president of the Constituent Assembly, would have been the first President of India.
But Vallabhbhai Patel, the then deputy prime minister and home minister, was convinced that Rajendra Prasad deserved the position much more than Rajagopalachari due to his greater contribution to India's struggle for independence. Patel was of the firm view that Jawaharlal must not be allowed to bring in his personal and ideological differences with Prasad to ruin the latter's chances for the top constitutional position in the country.
Just as the Congress leadership had to make the critical choice for the presidential nomination in December 1949, the BJP leadership was to make this crucial decision this week.
Rajendra Prasad's candidature was the bone of contention in December 1949; the candidature of L K Advani—who transformed the party from a political pariah to a potent political force capable of leading the nation—would have raised similar divergence of opinion in the party had there been any scope for democratic discourse in the BJP.
Rajendra Prasad's and L K Advani's positions vis-à-vis the respective political establishments were rather similar.
Rajendra Prasad was a towering figure of India's freedom movement but Nehru, an agnostic, personally disliked Prasad's conservative outlook. Nehru did not want a manifestly religious man to occupy the top constitutional position in an avowedly secular country.
The hard reality is that the BJP today has been reduced to a one-man show; there is no second man in the current cabinet to question Modi as Patel did Nehru.
L K Advani's contribution to the rise of the Hindutva as a political force is unparalleled (he ought to have been the prime minister in 1999 but he graciously conceded the position to Atal Behari Vajpayee in deference to the latter's seniority), but when he lost to Narendra Modi in the leadership challenge in 2013, his political fate was doomed.
The presidential election in 2017 did come as an opportunity for the BJP to express gratitude to the man without whom the party would have been confined to the periphery of India's mainstream politics, just like the Jan Sangh, its previous incarnation, languished for decades. Hardly any member of the Sangh Parivar would disagree that to Advani goes the larger credit for turning a newly minted BJP into a mainstream party.
But, unfortunately for Advani, he has not been in the good books of Modi for a while now.
As mentioned before, Advani faced the personal dislike of Modi in the same way Jawaharlal Nehru made his disagreement with Rajendra Prasad self-evident. But unlike Advani, Rajendra Prasad remained a frontrunner in the presidential race because of the strong backing of Sardar Patel, the deputy prime minister. At the behest of Patel, some members of the Congress raised the demand to make Prasad the first President. Nehru did not mince words in expressing his disapproval of this proposal.
In a rather straight communication with Prasad, Nehru wrote in September 1949:
"... we felt that the safest and best course from a number of points of view was to allow present arrangements to continue, mutatis mutandis. That is that Rajaji might continue as President. ... in a way to push out Rajaji at this stage would be almost condemnation of his work. That would be most unfortunate."
Nothing could be a more direct indication of intent than this, but Prasad did not back down, as he had the support of Patel. He wrote back:
"There is no condemnation involved or implied if a man is not reappointed to a post... on the expiry of the term of his office... Please excuse the feeling that I cannot help entertaining that I deserved a more decent (treatment)".
Nehru kept on the pressure for Rajendra Prasad to quit the race, but Patel kept up the campaign to keep out Rajagopalachari, whom he described as a "half-Muslim." Nehru, in the true democratic tradition, called a meeting of the Congress MPs to discuss the matter. He proposed the name of Rajagopalachari, but several members expressed their disapproval of the name. Nehru explicitly sought Patel's support which he refused to extend.
In the Nehruvian era, the democratic discourse was an established practice and there was scope for the genuine expression of the majority and minority points of view.
But when the candidature of Rajendra Prasad was proposed, many MPs, loyal supporters of Patel, vociferously backed the idea. The matter was decided then and there. Keeping in view the larger sentiment in the party, Nehru conceded defeat and accepted Rajendra Prasad's nomination.
But unfortunately for Advani, there is no Patel to back him (Shatrughan Sinha, the BJP MP, has been in the forefront to propose Advani's name, but he himself is a marginalised leader today). Some used the ruse that criminal conspiracy charges were pending against Advani in the Babri Masjid demolition case. But then the same charge stood against Kalyan Singh in the same case as well but that did not prevent him from assuming the constitutional position of the governor of Rajasthan.
The hard reality is that the BJP today has been reduced to a one-man show; there is no second man in the current cabinet to question Modi as Patel did Nehru. Be it Rajnath Singh or Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj or even Amit Shah, they are just the sidekicks of the supreme leader.
If any of them would have dared to challenge the personal predilections of the prime minister and suggested Advani's name for President, let alone mobilise support for him, he or she was bound to meet the same fate that has befallen Advani in the last three years.
Modi is a great admirer of Vallabhbhai Patel, but he would firmly crush any of his senior cabinet colleagues if they tried to do a Patel to him.
In the Nehruvian era, the democratic discourse was an established practice and there was scope for the genuine expression of the majority and minority points of view. That is why Prasad could be chosen as the presidential nominee despite the firm opposition of the then Prime Minister. But today when the BJP parliamentary meeting took place to decide the ruling party's candidate for presidency, it merely rubber-stamped the decision taken by the Prime Minister (the three-member ministerial committee was again just an eyewash).
This episode reminds us of the current degeneration of the Indian democratic practice as compared to the Nehruvian days.
It is also a pointer to a rather stark irony: Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, is a great admirer of Vallabhbhai Patel, the Iron Man, but he would firmly crush any of his senior cabinet colleagues—a Rajnath Singh or an Arun Jaitley or the like—if they tried to do a Patel to him.
L K Advani is distinctly unlucky in that the BJP does not have a leader like Vallabhbhai Patel in its ranks.