LK Advani was announced Monday as the candidate for Prime Minister if his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were to win sufficient seats at the next election to form a government. Elections are not due till 2009, but there is much speculation that they could come early. The current minority Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance has been in an ongoing tussle with the Left parties, who support the UPA from outside cabinet, over the pending US-India nuclear agreement.
The announcement of Advani is hardly a surprise, as he has been the leader of the official Opposition in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) for some time. However, till now, the formal chair of the party has remained Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee was Prime Minister of the BJP-led minority governments for two weeks in 1996 and again in 1998-99, as well as of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance majority government that served a full term (1999 to 2004). (The current Congress-led government resulted from the 2004 elections.)
What is most interesting about the announcement is its timing: just as assembly elections in the important state of Gujarat are getting underway. Gujarat is one of the BJP’s strongholds. The party currently has a two thirds majority there, and the election is now looking like it could be close, aided by coordination among opposition parties:
â€œThe index of opposition unity is high,â€ said a Left leader referring to a proper seat sharing deal between the UPA members, a contrast from 2002 when the Congress and Sharad Pawarâ€™s NCP fought separately. [The NCP is now a constituent party of the UPA in the central cabinet.]
There had been speculation that if the BJP were to perform well in Gujarat, its Chief Minister (state premier), Narendra Modi, might have mounted a challenge to Advani for national leadership. Internal divisions in the state’s party will probably prevent a strong showing. The federal party’s announcement could be partly an attempt at preemption of Modi’s national ambitions, but also, an effort to reassure Modi’s intra-party rivals. Advani, who turned 80 last month, represents a Lok Sabha district in Gujarat.
Like most state, as well as federal, elections in India, polling takes place over several stages. That is, not all districts vote on the same day. The first stage of the Gujarat elections is 11 December, and the second and final stage will be 16 December. Votes will be counted on 23 December.
Another state with a close BJP-Congress race, Himachal Pradesh, is also voting: The first stage was 21 November and the final stage will be 19 December.