In the last eight years, there is a lesson Lutyens’ media has learnt the hard way: Never try to read or guess Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind. And if someone in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party tells you that he or she knows his mind, take it with a pinch of salt. Don’t write what they claim to know. They are good for intelligent guesses, at best.
When the BJP Parliamentary Board (read Modi) decided Saturday to nominate Jagdeep Dhankhar as the party’s vice-presidential candidate, no one was surprised. That’s because everyone was waiting for a surprise. So was the case with Droupadi Murmu’s presidential candidature. There were, of course, a few know-it-alls who were also betting on Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi as the next V-P candidate until Saturday.
Dhankhar’s candidature and the politics around
Wisdom comes in hindsight in Modi era. Today we know why it couldn’t have been anybody other than Murmu and Dhankhar. The West Bengal Governor’s choice as the V-P candidate fits the bill so perfectly. What Yogi Adityanath is to BJP chief ministers, Dhankhar is to Raj Bhawan occupants across the country — a major source of inspiration. He might have given West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee more troubles than all BJP leaders combined could. In February, a senior bureaucrat in the state government shot off a letter to the Raj Bhawan, giving dates for the Assembly session to be summoned. The Raj Bhawan wrote back questioning his competence. Later, accepting the state cabinet’s recommendation to convene the Assembly on 7 March at “2 a.m.”, the governor tweeted, “Assembly meeting after midnight at 2.00 A.M. is unusual and history of sorts in making, but that is Cabinet Decision.” State chief secretary wrote to the Governor, urging him to change the time from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. It was an inadvertent typographical error, explained the official. The Raj Bhawan refused, citing the chief secretary’s competence to seek the said change. An upset Mamata Banerjee then called the Governor asking for the same, but to no avail. The state cabinet had to meet again and make another recommendation to the Governor to summon the assembly at 2 pm, instead of 2 am.
When the assembly secretariat sent the government the Bill that proposed to make the CM Chancellor of state universities, he returned it because inputs were ‘incomplete’. The assembly secretariat was asked to give an English transcript of the debate on the Bill in the House. It has been a fortnight but the Assembly secretariat hasn’t sent it. That’s Jagdeep Dhankhar teaching Bengal’s ministers and bureaucrats a bit of the Constitution and laws. He was known as the most under-estimated senior counsel at the Supreme Court for over two decades.
So, Modi knows he can bank on Dhankhar when opposition members in the Rajya Sabha start reading the rule book, as is their wont. His friendship across isles would be helpful, too. As Kolkata Raj Bhawan officials would tell you despite his constant run-ins with Mamata Banerjee, their telephonic conversations never lasted less than 10-15 minutes and their meetings less than 100 minutes. Text exchanges between the two were equally regular- on a daily basis, in fact.
This skill set of Dhakhar — of communicating with frenemies — will come handy when he becomes the V-P. He fits the bill perfectly. So does Draupadi Murmu as the President, a titular head.
How Murmu and Dhankhar fit in Modi’s Mission 2024
Their nominations and expected elections to their posts also signal the launch of Modi’s preparations for 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In terms of symbolism, both have political utility across several states. A prominent Jat leader from Rajasthan, Dhankhar as the V-P would give the BJP a big talking point in its outreach to Jats in other states, too — notably, in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The fact that former Rajasthan CM, Vasundhara Raje Scindia — not a BJP high command’s favourite — had sidelined him for years in the party made Dhankhar’s CV no less attractive to Modi-Shah. He has been much more loyal to them than she ever was.
Draupadi Murmu, a tribal face as India’s President, works wonderfully for the BJP in about a dozen Assembly elections leading to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Scheduled Tribes constitute 14.8 per cent and 5.7 per cent of the population in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh respectively, states that will go to polls this year. Out of nine states that go to polls next year, four are in the northeast where tribals play a decisive role — Nagaland (86.5 per cent), Meghalaya (86.1 per cent) and Tripura (31.8 per cent) in February and Mizoram (94.4 per cent) in November. Tribals constitute seven per cent of the population in Karnataka that will go to polls in May next year. Of the four states that go to polls in November, tribals constitute 30.6 per cent of the population in Chhattisgarh, 21.1 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 13.5 per cent in Rajasthan and 9 per cent in Telangana.
Tribals constitute around 23 per cent of the population in Odisha, Murmu’s home state, which will go to assembly polls along with the Lok Sabha election in 2024. They make up 26 per cent of the population in Jharkhand where then Governor Draupadi Murmu, in 2017, stalled two proposed amendments in the tenancy laws which allegedly compromised tribals’ rights over land and natural resources. Jharkhand will go to polls in November 2024. Maharashtra, which is slated to go to polls in October that year, has over nine per cent tribal population. Haryana will go to polls along with Maharashtra.
One may argue whether the President or the Vice-President play a consequential role in boosting the ruling party’s prospects. It’s difficult to say. In 2017, Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit (of Kori sub-caste or weaver) leader from Uttar Pradesh became the President of India. As per CSDS-Lokniti post-poll surveys, the number of Jatavs voting for the BJP-led alliance went up to 21 per cent in 2022 from eight per cent in 2017 and non-Jatavs 41 per cent from 32 per cent for the same period.
It’s, however, difficult to draw any conclusions from this data as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) witnessed a decline in its vote share. The Samajwadi Party (SP)-led alliance also witnessed an increase in Dalit votes — nine from three per cent among Jatavs and 23 from 11 per cent from non-Jatavs for the said period. Also, Venkaiah Naidu’s election as the V-P didn’t seem to have any impact on the BJP’s fortune in Andhra Pradesh in 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP drew a blank. Naidu, like Chandrababu Naidu belongs to Kamma community. As per CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey, the TDP, and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s party, the YSRCP, together secured 95 per cent of the Kamma votes.
One may also argue that if the identity of the President of India was to have any electoral impact, Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure (2012-17) would have resulted in the Congress’ revival in West Bengal. Similarly, Hamid Ansari’s ten-year-tenure (2007-17) as the Vice-President of India should have boosted the Congress’ standing in UP, among the Muslims, at least. No such thing happened for the Congress in Bengal or UP, not to speak of other states.
Modi-Shah’s BJP isn’t the Congress, of course. Look at the opposition’s choice of Presidential and V-P candidates — Yashwant Sinha and Margaret Alva. Sinha, a Kayastha, can hardly dent the BJP’s votebank in his own state, Jharkhand, while Alva, a Christian, is politically inconsequential even on the home turf Karnataka.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)