Veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani, once the party patriarch, is a movie buff. He couldn’t have missed Coen brothers’ much-acclaimed No Country for Old Men. In the 2007 film, the hero gets shot and the villains get away while Tommy Lee Jones, playing the old sheriff, is left brooding over the loss of values and morality in today’s world.
So, last week, when the BJP parliamentary board comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other senior party leaders met to discuss the fate of above-75 leaders, Advani, 91, must have been feeling like the gas station owner in the film whose fate was going to be decided by the flipping of a coin by Javier Bardem playing the antagonist.
The age bar of 75 for party ticket allotment was as good as a coin toss. It became a supposed criterion for entry into the Modi government only after the BJP’s election victory in May 2014. There was never a formal declaration nor did anybody know how and when it was made a criterion. But everybody had heard of it. How it was fixed at 75 was never clear. But it was low enough for ambitious veterans such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha to be excluded from the Cabinet, and for Kalraj Mishra and Najma Heptulla to be conveniently cast aside after a limited stint in the government.
On Friday evening, the BJP parliamentary board refrained from formalising a decision, preferring to keep ‘winnability’ as the principal criterion, which is often a subjective assessment. Senior BJP leaders, including many in the parliamentary board, must have heaved a sigh of relief as the formalisation of the age criteria, whether for tickets or ministership, could curtail their political careers too.
Say, if Modi, over 68 today, is in great shape for a second term in 2019, he would be in pretty good shape for the third term in 2024, too. And if he gets a third term—don’t forget the BJP’s plan to rule India for the next 50 years—would any BJP leader in their right mind want him to take a bow and leave after barely 14 months into office? The BJP parliamentary board, therefore, took a sensible decision not to make age the criterion for party tickets. The same for ministership is set to lapse into oblivion sooner than later.
The irony is that the man who is at the receiving end of this age debate is Advani who along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee had groomed the Gen Next of the BJP— Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and any other leader worth their salt.
In April 2002 at Panaji, Advani had taken even his senior party colleagues by surprise when he announced that ministers in the Vajpayee government would be sent to work for the party to give it a youthful look. A couple of months later, Venkaiah Naidu, then 53, replaced Jana Krishnamurthi as BJP president and Arun Jaitley was brought in as the party general secretary and spokesperson. Krishnamurthi replaced Jaitley in the government. There were lots of other organisational changes then.
In this backdrop, the attempt by Modi and Amit Shah to force the old guards to retire and promote a new generation of leaders shouldn’t have caused the kind of heartburns and consternation as the 39-year-old party is witnessing today. It was because the exercise carried out by Advani and Vajpayee looked more democratic and not targeted at settling scores with individuals. But more importantly, the Gen Next promoted by Advani comprised competent and talented people who didn’t have to flatter their way to higher echelons of the party or the government. In fact, the few competent ministers Modi government has were all groomed by Advani and Vajpayee.
BJP president Amit Shah needs no certificate for his tremendous organisational skill. He has turned the ruling party into a formidable election machine. But he hasn’t shown the same skill and judgement in picking his core team. Except for Kailash Vijayvargiya and Saroj Pandey, none from Shah’s core team of general secretaries — Bhupendra Yadav, Anil Jain, Murlidhar Rao, Ram Madhav and Arun Singh —have ever contested any elections. The ministers who are close to Shah and who he has been sending to states for election management —J.P. Nadda, Piyush Goyal, Prakash Javadekar and Dharmendra Pradhan — are all Rajya Sabha members. The BJP president has got leaders with mass base—Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh and Raman Singh—who are available for organisational work, but he has given them the ceremonial post of the vice-president.
Modi and Shah also sought to develop Gen Next leaders in the states—Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, Sarbanand Sonowal in Assam, Raghubar Das in Jharkhand, Manoharlal Khattar in Haryana and Biplab Deb in Tripura, to name a few—but they have been a huge disappointment in terms of both political and administrative acumen. Of these, the Maharashtra chief minister has shown potential as an administrator, according to his party colleagues, but he is far from emerging as a mass leader.
Vajpayee and Advani proved themselves great leaders who spotted talent, honed and groomed future leaders who could usher the party into the 21st century. Modi and Shah have led the party to its pinnacle of glory, but the leaders they are grooming as their prospective successors fail to inspire any confidence.
The most common characteristic of this new generation of BJP leaders is their yes-boss-attitude and lack of any connect with the masses or the BJP workers on the ground. But they make up for what they lack with round-the-clock praise for Modi and Shah and by rote-learning the biblical teaching of tying their loyalty and faithfulness around their necks. And that’s evidently the way to go in today’s BJP.