The mistake Tai made

It is certainly no way to treat a lady and especially not one who has been the presiding officer of Parliament. Sumitra Mahajan will go down in parliamentary history as the first Lok Sabha Speaker who has been denied renomination by her own party.

And, the ignominy was heaped on her for no fault of hers. Mahajan will turn 76 this week. She is affectionately called ‘Tai’ by her friends and admirers, was not formally denied the ticket but the party high command virtually forced her to call it a day by delaying any announcement of party candidate for the prestigious Indore seat.

Tai is the first woman parliamentarian in the country to have won eight elections in a row from the same constituency (Indore). She belongs to the Konkan region of Maharashtra and was married into an Indore family. She rose in politics, largely on the back of municipal politics and has an illustrious local history.

The axing of Mahajan is no ordinary event. In Britain, one of the world’s oldest democracies, the Speaker is held in such reverence that no party puts up a candidate against him or her, as a healthy sign of a parliamentary democracy. However, ironically in India, the Speaker faced an unenviable situation, where she was not even aware if she would be renominated.

In post-Independent India, the only Speaker who was not renominated by his party was the late CPI-M veteran Somnath Chatterjee, in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. But the context was different. A year before the polls, Chatterjee had been expelled from the party, which was then headed by Prakash Karat.

After the Left parties withdrew support to the Manmohan Singh government in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Chatterjee had disobeyed the party directive to resign as Speaker. The question of Chatterjee’s renomination did not arise when the Lok Sabha polls came, as by then, the gulf between him and the party had widened and Chatterjee had virtually become persona non grata for the party. The case of Mahajan is totally in contrast.

To put it mildly, Mahajan played the BJP game all through in the running of Parliament. Modi wanted to project his larger-than-life image as the first non-Congress leader who had brought a majority to his party. But Modi did not come alone. He brought his ‘Gujarat model’ along. In the model, there was virtually no place for the opposition.

Mahajan might have been made the Presiding officer but she was apparently made to believe or persuaded that with changing times, the rules of democracy too had changed. It was not for nothing that the opposition leaders, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, complained umpteen times how the Chair has been less than fair to them. Her alleged harshness to the Congress was a subject of animated discussion in political circles. Within the BJP too, Mahajan toed the Modi-Amit Shah line to a T.

As Speaker, she ensured that the old guard, be it L K Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi, did not become troublesome for the government inside the House. The likes of Shanta Kumar, Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri and Karia Munda were virtually silent, knowing that the times had changed and one must lie low. Advani and Joshi too understood that things had changed.

Tai must have thought that by doing the bidding of the powers that be, she would be rewarded. It was said she would have loved it had she been made President or even Vice President, given her seniority and the services rendered by her. She had not only turned Indore into a BJP citadel but was known to be a mild-mannered and non-controversial leader. Her reputation got sullied once she became the Speaker, though no one said it openly.

Her decision denying the Congress the status of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha was seen to be in line with the letter of the law but not its spirit. It suited Modi’s politics to deny the Congress such a post and Mahajan was seen to be in line with the ruling party.

The mammoth mistake Mahajan made appears to be her belief that the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani has not undergone a drastic change under Modi-Shah and that things were unlikely to change for her as she was the presiding officer.

This belief led to her thinking that she was different from the other seniors in the party who had been dumped lock, stock and barrel last month by denying them renomination.  This belief led to her ignominy, as Modi-Shah appeared to have mastered the art of ‘use and throw’ and they had concluded that Mahajan was no longer of any use to their politics and could be dispensed with.

BJP insiders say that if Modi comes to power again with a comfortable majority, he will bring to the fore a new team of loyalists and many, who are now in ministerial positions, will be sidelined. Such a course of action appears likely given the fact that Modi-Shah have turned the BJP into the “world’s largest party’ and would like it to run their own way.

Loyalists of the Prime Minister often proclaim from the rooftops that their leader traverses an ‘untrodden path’ after gaining the reins of power. Tragically, it is also true in the organisational matters. The axing of the old guard, including Mahajan, is proof of that.

No longer is the BJP the “party with a difference’. BJP is changing, and changing fast. Time will tell whether it is for the better or worse. No one in the BJP has spoken a word on the felling of the veterans. For the time being, Modi-Shah are on cloud nine.

(The writer is former political editor, Press Trust of India)

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