The numbers for his election as Vice-President are on the BJP’s side with some southern comfort from regional parties. What that will deliver is that for the first time ever, both the President and Vice-President will be from the Sangh Parivaar. It’s quite a takeover of the heart of the Indian establishment by the saffron family. Naidu, 68, is a strategic choice as the BJP seeks to broaden its pan-India footprint and make a push for the southern states. Naidu was born in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh and started his political career as President of the Andhra University and has served as BJP President twice. He holds two portfolios in the Modi government: Information & Broadcasting and Urban Development.
Naidu is jovial with a penchant for alliterations and quips and a huge foodie who shows great pride in the sea food lunches he hosts for journalists and politicians across the spectrum. Once, after an interview, he would not let me leave without taking some delicious exotic fruit after he realised I was a vegetarian.
Naidu is cut in the mould of the old BJP of Vajpayee and Advani and has excellent cross party relations which will stand him in good stead as he will also run the fractious Rajya Sabha as Chairman. The BJP and allies will not hit the majority mark in the Upper House till next year. In its three years thus far, the Modi government has often tried to bypass the Rajya Sabha because it has been in a minority. As Chairman, Naidu will replace Hamid Ansari with whom the Modi government had a testy relationship.
It has proved to be second-time lucky for Naidu as earlier LK Advani wanted to choose him as the Leader of the Upper House where he lost out to Arun Jaitley.
Naidu has compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to an “avatar of God who India was lucky to have” and while many cringed at the hyperbole, it clearly endeared him to the Prime Minister.
The fact of Naidu being from the South weighed in heavily with the RSS which has detailed and clear plans to have the Sangh penetrate the region which, except for Karnataka, has seen only a fringe parivar presence. Though how much impact a leader without a mass base who has served four terms in the Rajya Sabha and one as an MLA in Andhra will have is debatable. Naidu even subscribes to the Sangh’s views on Hindi as the national language, still anathema to the South.
Naidu is a complete Sangh insider and totally steeped in its culture. The RSS was solidly batting for his candidature and Modi and Shah keeping in view the much anticipated “southern conquest” came on board.
While President Ram Nath Kovind will be an unknown quantity for most politicians, Naidu has a solid network both with industrialists and with leaders of other parties with whom he dealt as BJP president.
What will be the implications of the top two posts going to career Sangh politicians? After Kovind’s selection torpedoed opposition unity with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar switching loyalties, Modi and Shah had room to pick an independent candidate with impeccable credentials as Veep. They chose to go with hard-blooded political calculations balancing all the imponderables of Indian politics such as caste and region.
Perhaps, it is the still fragile situation of numbers in the Rajya Sabha which will resolve in their favour next year which decided it for Naidu.
The second glaring point is the dropout rate of the Modi cabinet with no full-time Defence Minister when we are in a virtual stand-off with China and Pakistan. Arun Jaitley holds both the key portfolios of Finance and Defence without any statutory audit oversight after Manohar Parrikar departed for Goa as Chief Minister.
Naidu’s elevation will leave two portfolios vacant and speculation is already feverish that his deputy R Rathore will be elevated to the cabinet with the I&B ministry.
Says a senior BJP leader: “It does point to a certain lack of agency that cabinet ministers are delighted to go back as Chief Ministers. In Naidu’s case, of course, he had his heart set on the job.”
The person most disappointed with Naidu’s selection will be Manipur Governor Najma Heptullah who had gone public in an interview with me about wanting to be Veep, a desire she had conveyed to Amit Shah.
Since this will be the first time the Sangh will have its own in two top jobs, they will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny to see how they uphold the constitutional norms of the republic they swear to protect.
Clearly, a degree of detachment and independence is essential. With the NDA in a minority in the Rajya Sabha and a general election in 2019, the President and Vice President will be under a lot of pressure. Whose values – the constitution’s or that of the RSS – will prevail? It could get tricky.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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