The BJP had projected L K Advani as the party's prime ministerial candidate, but the party did miserably against what was hoped and expected by the BJP strategists. Why did the BJP do badly in these elections and where does the responsibility lie? Those were the two key issues that Karan Thapar explored on Devil's Advocate with former BJP president Venkaiah Naidu.
Karan Thapar: Mr Naidu, the BJP has accepted that these results are disappointing. But the truth is that they are much worse than that. In the last year you have seen inflation go above 12 per cent. You have seen the worst terrorist strike in India's 60-year history and the worst economic slowdown that is still continuing.
Can you deny that in these circumstances, you have the best chances to defeat an indifferent Congress government and yet you failed?
Venkaiah Naidu: Definitely, we have failed. There's no denying that bit. But the question is, what were the reasons? That has to be analysed.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely. I come to the reasons in a moment's time. But would you accept that this is a particularly disappointing failure because you had a really good chance to succeed?
Venkaiah Naidu: Yes, we were hoping for the best performance this time. We were also hoping that we will cross the (General Elections) 1999 mark of 182. But the results went otherwise.
Karan Thapar: Now, Arun Jaitley has said that because of fear of instability and the Third Front, the country voted for Congress. But he hasn't explained why in this situation they (voters) preferred Congress over the BJP.
Venkaiah Naidu: One of the reason is that people are tired with the roadblocks and the brakes of the Left and the likes. So they wanted any government at the Centre to be free from this so that they can take the country forward. In that the Congress had an advantage of more presence in more states and also had good alliances.
Also, circumstances helped them in some states like Kerala where there is an anti-incumbency against the government of Bengal and Kerala. They have the biggest issues of the states. BJP could not take advantage of that because our area of influence in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal is comparatively weak.
Karan Thapar: But, can you accept this that although the Congress may have had some advantages, the BJP wasn't trusted to give the stability that the country wanted. That at the end of the day was held against it.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think so, Sir. Let me be very frank, we have proved to the country that with 23 parties, we gave for five years an able leader, stable government. Secondly, with the Congress party, you have seen that the PMK is gone, the MDMK is gone, TRS gone, BSP and SP gone, Left party gone, Lalu gone, Ram Vilas is gone too. It has got no logic.
Somewhere, some sort of feeling has crept up that minority, a whole lot of minorities, has moved towards the Congress party. That became an advantage to the Congress party.
Karan Thapar: Alright, let's next come to the reasons why the BJP did so badly. To begin with, can you accept that you that you did not fight the best possible campaign? You raised issues that people thought were irrelevant and didn't strike a chord, ignoring issues that were in your manifesto which could have been much more successful.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not agree with you, Karanji. Let me very frank. Price rise, farm crisis, unemployment and terrorism were the main issues we have raised. In addition to theses we also raised other issues. But unfortunately, the media never took theses issues seriously and always tried to divert the attention of the people to other issues. This is one aspect.
We, in our campaign, have highlighted the stellar points of our manifesto which were very attractive. But in our ability to communicate to the people or to do it in a better manner, there was something lacking.
Karan Thapar: So, you have raised the right issues but you were unable to communicate the importance. The wrong issues got communicated instead.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do agree with you.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this. Issues that people remember were Swiss money, Quattrocchi and Afzal Guru. Even some of the chief ministers have said that these weren't really the most important issues. Wasn't a stake made in focusing on these?
Venkaiah Naidu: The focus was on the burning issues before the nation. But as I told you, how many people does one communicate directly to? You have to communicate through the communication system which is the electronic media or the print media. What is important to them? They thought otherwise. They highlighted other issues.
I do not feel shy about talking on Swiss money, Afzal Guru or Quattrochchi. These were issues too. But the more important issues, if you go through my (BJP) election manifesto or in the speeches of my leader, the focus was on the burning issues of the people.
Karan Thapar: So, the press highlighted issues wrongly from your perspective, that's what you are saying?
Venkaiah Naidu: They have highlighted issues according to their choice and their interest. They wanted to have some sensational thing and that's how it has happened.
Karan Thapar: Who's advice was it that Mr Advani should raise Swiss money, Afzal Guru and Quattrochchi or did he decide to do so himself?
Venkaiah Naidu: No, this is a question of common sense. Can you keep quiet when the government wants to let off Quattrochchi? Can you keep quiet when you learn that Western countries too are concerned about the accumulation of money in Swiss bank? Even western countries insist that it has to be brought back.
Karan Thapar: But it did not work with the people.
Venkaiah Naidu: It worked in Karnataka, it worked in Gujarat. It worked in Madhya Pradesh and in Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.
Karan Thapar: Even in Madhya Pradesh, you ended up losing seats rather than retaining the ones you had.
Venkaiah Naidu: Try to understand that there are reasons state-wise. Six to seven candidates were contesting for the fifth to sixth time; people thought that they are tired of these people and wanted some change.
I have previously been in-charge of particularly the belt of Madhya Pradesh. I have realised that because of selection of local candidates, we lost some seats.
Karan Thapar: So, candidate selection wasn't as good as it should have been?
Venkaiah Naidu: I won't say in all places. In some places, yes that was the case.
Karan Thapar: Okay. If you had changed candidates and offered a new face, you would have done better.
Venkaiah Naidu: In context of Madhya Pradesh, I feel, yes.
Karan Thapar: Let's broaden the discussion a little. It's not just that the issues that were raised got misrepresented by the press as you put it or these were the wrong issues as I put it, it is also that the general tone and tenor of the BJP was perhaps a little shrill.
People say that the attack on the Prime Minister was upsetting, for many it was off-setting or offensive.
Venkaiah Naidu: Sir, it is very easy now to make comments, write columns and even to make a commentary. Did Mr Advani or anyone from the party criticise Mr Manmohan Singh personally? No one talked about his height, no one talked of his height or weight. We talked about the performance.
Karan Thapar: But it came across as personal criticism.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think so. The Congressmen may have put it as so and some adversaries to us may have put it as thus before the people. As far as the public is concerned, I know that is not the issue on which the people have not voted for us.
Karan Thapar: Arun Jaitley, writing in the ‘Indian Express’ says that ‘shrillness doe not pay’. Would you accept that even if you do not intent to, the attack on the Prime Minister unintentionally came off as shrill and trivial?
Venkaiah Naidu: Sir, people in India always like moderation. The Indian psyche or the Hindu psyche that you call as Bharatiya psyche has always liked moderation. They want balance. We have tried to strike the right balance always. But unfortunately, a negative perception (about the BJP) has been created in the minds of the people.
Karan Thapar: And that was held against you?
Venkaiah Naidu: Yes, with minorities going away totally to the other side.
Karan Thapar: Another issue on which perhaps you should have been moderate and the impression given was that you were not moderate is the Varun Gandhi issue.
The BJP disassociated itself from his comments but not from his candidature. The result is that instead of taking a high moral ground, it was as though you were criticising the enquiry with the Election Commission instead. That's an uncomfortable position for the BJP to be in.
Venkaiah Naidu: Sir, the day the speech was reported, the party has categorically stated that we are not in agreement with the purported statements. We call it the 'purported statements' because the boy was pretty innocent.
No 2, let me give an example of my own state Andhra Pradesh. The state Congress president has made similar remarks but that was not carried by the media. It's another matter that he has lost the election, the Congress president of the Andhra Pradesh, imagine. But here it was shown morning and evening about what Varun Gandhi was saying. It had a negative effect.
>Karan Thapar: It had a negative effect, and you accept that?
Venkaiah Naidu: I do agree.
Karan Thapar: Wasn't it unfortunate that many people thought that the BJP ended up quarrelling with the Election Commission? Certainly, that's not a happy position to be in.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think so, Sir. We always co-operate with the Election Commission. We never made any comments about the Election Commission. Of course about another Election Commissioner, we did make an issue. But we took it to the appropriate authorities.
We never criticise the Election Commissioner on conducting elections. You tell with all your experience if the Election Commission can tell you who to put up as candidate and who not to?
Karan Thapar: But you accept that on this issue, the impression that was formed in the voters' minds went against you?
Venkaiah Naidu: Yes, the impression, yes to some extent it affected us.
Karan Thapar: And that you were misunderstood?
Venkaiah Naidu: Yes, definitely misunderstood.
Karan Thapar: Many people feel that the problems for the BJP began the day it broke up with the BJD. On hindsight, do you feel that you should have been more accommodating of Naveen Patnaik? From that day onwards, in the minds of the people a slide had begun instead of your being in strength.
Venkaiah Naidu: That's right. For the NDA, BJD has been an important partner. But I must tell you the true story. Ten days before the breakdown of talks, I had met Naveen babu in Delhi. We almost agreed on the numbers. What has happened in between, we do not know.
After he went to Bhubaneswar, he changed the tone and tune and he wanted BJP to reduce the numbers considerably. He seems to have made up his mind there because there were advisors advising him that we will go alone and that we will get comfortable majority.
Karan Thapar: But you accept that the slide in the people's mind had begun?
Venkaiah Naidu: Yes, when a trusted and major ally who was with you for years, goes, naturally people begin to think what is happening. The Telugu Desam, AIDMK, the BJD gone, so there is some amount of confusion in the minds of the people about whether we are weakening down.
Karan Thapar: So this was the starting point of that impression.
Venkaiah Naidu: Starting point or whatever point, it sure was a point.
Karan Thapar: Do you think that your (party's) behaviour goes back to the days in five years as the Opposition? For example, over the Indo-US Nuclear deal, you tied yourself into knots.
You were the architect of the new relationship with the United States and yet in this deal, you ended up becoming the chief opponent of your own vision.
Venkaiah Naidu: We are for good relations with the Unites States and with we also wanted the Indo-US nuclear deal. But somehow, some of the clauses in the deal were against India's benefits.
Karan Thapar: But have the people understood.
Venkaiah Naidu: People have not understood even what is the Indo-US Nuclear deal.
Karan Thapar: So, do you think that your position was wrongly misunderstood and that people felt that you were backtracking?
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think Indo-US deal has that much influence on the voters. If it did, the Karnataka is one of the states. You have seen the voting there. We put up a magnificent show there and also in Jharkhand.
Karan Thapar: Maybe, the Indo-US deal did not influence voters. Others still say it did. Many people say that your response to the Ram Sene in Karnataka and to Kandhamal in Orissa was out of tune with the mood of the country. The BJP ended up worrying people. You may not have intended to, but you ended up worrying people.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think you can compare the two. But there are views that we should have acted immediately about Ram Sene. Not many people knew that Ram Sene has criticised Advaniji and the BJP left and right.
We have taken action tough against them inside the Karnataka state. But outside the state there was a lot of negative publicity that may have influenced a section of the people.
Karan Thapar: So, outside Karnataka, your position on the Ram Sene went against you?
Venkaiah Naidu: It is possible. To some extent may be.
Karan Thapar: And that if you had acted quickly, more strongly and more decisively may be you could have contained it.
Venkaiah Naidu: You can't simple identify one single issue or attribute the fact to one single fact to attribute our defeat to. There a number of issues and they are different from state to state. You have seen what has happened in the elections.
Karan Thapar: But you accept that outside Karnataka, this is one issue?
Venkaiah Naidu: Our image got a beating on this issue.
Karan Thapar: Finally, do you think that your stand on 26/11 went against you? You criticised the government's handling of 26/11 but that opened you to an attack on Kargil. In the end while exposing the government's weaknesses, your own weakness was exposed.
Venkaiah Naidu: No, I do not think so. A section of the media went totally against us, highlighting it everyday though it was no issue at all. We raked up the issue of the approach of the government to terror.
They have disbanded POTA (Prevention of Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act) and have not brought any alternative legislation. As an effect, 26/11 was one such instance. Do you think that we should keep quiet on such an important issue?
Karan Thapar: No, but as an end result once again there was a confusion in the minds of the voters that went against you or again it tarnished your image.
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not think that is the reason for the people's verdict because Kandahar, Kargil are issues over with in 2004 elections itself. Our adversaries have highlighted it but I do not think that it has influenced the minds of the people.
Karan Thapar: Looking back, do you think that you underestimated the appeal of the Congress and perhaps over-estimated anti-incumbency?
Venkaiah Naidu: More than anti-incumbency, we were confident that people would remember the good work done by NDA during our regime and compare the total failure of the current government in the last five years. They (the people) are victims, themselves of the price rise, growing unemployment, job losses and farmer suicides.
Karan Thapar: And that did not happen?
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not know what is the reason. It needs to be analysed what led to the Congress resurgence to some extent and then led to setback to BJP.
Karan Thapar: Do you think you were confident?
Venkaiah Naidu: We were confident. Advaniji has been cautioning us from the beginning itself, to not be over-confident. As we have seen that the mood was against the Congress. The people of Tamil Nadu we saw in the last days of the campaigns were totally against the Congress.
Karan Thapar: But you say the mood was against the Congress and now it turns out that the mood of the country was with the Congress. Did you misread the mood of the country?
Venkaiah Naidu: Now, Sir when the election results are out. They have won and we have lost. Now we must politely and humbly accept the verdict of the people and sit in Opposition and assume the constructive role of Opposition. Then we can look for the future because politics is not for one day like the Twenty-20 match. It's a mission of a lifetime for us.
Karan Thapar: We talked about why the BJP did not do well. Let's now talk about the issue of responsibility. First, how much devolves on Arun Jaitley as your chief election strategist?
Venkaiah Naidu: Sir, nothing is decided on individuals in BJP. Win or lose, it's a collective responsibility. Sometimes media credits somebody for winning three states or losing four states but in the BJP the thinking is that decisions are taken collectively and they are implemented collectively.
So it's not wise to blame any individual for a campaign. It was a collective effort and we failed. So, we take collective responsibility.
Karan Thapar: Do you think that the image of the BJP was affected or dented because of the problems between Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh and by the fact that for about a week Arun Jaitley was seen sulking about it?
Venkaiah Naidu: I do not comment on intra-party matters in public. That has been my line from the beginning. So, I do not want to answer that question.
Karan Thapar: Okay, I know that you are reserving that answer though you are not agreeing with me nor disagreeing. Let me come to the second issue of L K Advani.
It is quite clear today that the country wasn't infused by the prospect of having him as the Prime Minister. Do you think that at 81 he is perhaps too old where 70 per cent of people are below 30?
Venkaiah Naidu: Sir, look at the man who was promoted by the Congress party as their Prime Minister. What is his age? Age is not a factor here. Character, calibre, capacity, conduct energy and enthusiasm. Of course, as far as Advaniji is concerned, there is no comparison to him from anyone in this country. There are local factors.
If Advaniji is rejected and Manmohan Singh is accepted, there has to be uniform trend across the country with small and minor exceptions. That is not the case. You have seen good results in number of states.
Karan Thapar: If age is not the factor then do you think that Mr Advani's image is either too divisive or perhaps too hardliner for a country like India.
Venkaiah Naidu: No, no. Advani's image has always been that of a decisive leader. It may have been propaganda by our opponents but Advani's image has always been that of a decisive leader. Whoever knows Advaniji, knows that he is a nationalist to the core and thinks of the entire nation, not of just some section?
Karan Thapar: So how do you explain the fact that for a man of the calibre of Advani and so accomplished as Advani, did not infuse the country with the idea that he could not be Prime Minister? It did not excite anyone, how do you explain that?
Venkaiah Naidu: You may say that it did not excite anyone. But even today, there are thousands of people who are very sad that he could not become the Prime Minister after so much contribution to the public life and to the political system of the country. There are various reasons, as I told you. Different states behaved in a different manner.
Karan Thapar: Is there no measure of responsibility that applies to Mr L K Advani?
Venkaiah Naidu: Like I told you in the beginning itself, no individual responsibility here.
Karan Thapar: Let's come finally to Narendra Modi. He was your star campaigner but it emerges that practically everywhere that he went, your vote-share went down and in some places it went down fairly sizably. Did he let you down?
Venkaiah Naidu: This is all wrong. Who said he was a star campaigner? He was one of the main campaigners and it's the media who coined the word star campaigner. My word is that Narendra Modi is a main campaigner. He was the campaigner. He will be a campaigner because he is a doer. He has done some good to the people Gujarat.
Karan Thapar: My point is that in Madhya Pradesh the BJP's vote-share went down by 4.68 per cent, in UP by 4.67 per cent, in Maharashtra by 4.44 per cent and even in Gujarat 085 per cent. Those are all states where Narendra Modi was a major campaigner.
Venkaiah Naidu: He was campaigning across the country. If you go through the total campaign schedule of Narendra bhai and see the number of seats then you will see that a good number of seats were won.
You cannot win or lose election by one campaign or one meeting; it's a collective effort for the party.
Karan Thapar: I have tried to ask you about the individual responsibility of three prominent people and in each instance you have replied that there is no individual responsibility and only collective.
People will turn around and say that this suggests that the party is in denial or that you are sheltering people because you do not want to expose people.
Venkaiah Naidu: You lose one election, then do you discard the leader? Congress lost in 1999, have they discarded the leader? It's not a Twenty-20 cricket match, it's a lifelong mission. You have to work hard, identify shortcomings and rectify them and move forward.
Karan Thapar: But, surely you cannot fight the next election with L K Advani as your leader!
Venkaiah Naidu: We will discuss that later. What is the urgency? This election is just over; the other side has taken over. Let us wish them best of luck and let them do good work as they have promised. Let us sit in Opposition and do our work as an Opposition party in a responsible and constructive manner.
Karan Thapar: Will you be honest in your analysis and will you be truthful or will you sweep it under the carpet?
Venkaiah Naidu: We will be truthful and go into in-depth analysis. We will go state-wise, region-wise and analyse the reasons for the set-back. We will try to identify the weaknesses and try to rectify them and move forward. That is the requirement of a healthy political party. I think we will be doing it.
Karan Thapar: Mr Naidu, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Venkaiah Naidu: Thank you.