The ‘Contenders’: Who Will Lead India Tomorrow.

TV anchor Priya Sahgal released her book ‘Contenders’ at a public function in New Delhi, marked by a panel discussion on the book’s content. Participants included Ram Madhav from the BJP, Abhishek Manu Singhvi from the Congress and former MP Pavan Verma. The session was moderated by the author herself.

Priya Sahgal: We are going to start by distinguishing the pretenders from the contenders, and I think I have the right panel with me for doing that. Dr. Singhvi, I will begin with you first since you are also someone who writes a lot of columns. You are an observer of politics. We’ve kept it for politicians under 55. The idea of the book is to take a look at Gen Next in the Age of Modi. At any other time, I think Rahul Gandhi would have had it easier. He may have been a prime ministerial contender, but today every text has a context. So, Rahul is, I think, is trapped in that. But in your mind, can you list three, four of them who you feel can make it to the grid of Prime Minister?

Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi: It’s always invidious to ask that kind of selection. I’ll nevertheless answer it as frankly as I can.

First and foremost, you have to decide what is it that makes all of these names, these various photographs here, contenders. My own thinking on a generalization basis is that it should be somebody with a pan India, broadly inclusive image, a persona which is not confined to regional narrower considerations in the perception of the people, at least somebody with a constant connect in the people’s mind. Milind Deora, for example, in that list, very talented, but he dropped out of the public sphere for a while more than two or three years. Now, having said that, as I said, I wouldn’t really like to choose. All of them are entitled. All of them are ambitious. But if you were to force me to choose, I would put RG Rahul Gandhi, Yogi, Arvind Kejriwal and Priyanka Gandhi. I would have added Scindia. And everybody in this room knows my relationship with Jyotiraditya Scindia and his father. I’m not putting him there because I believe that the BJP wants one of their own there. Their definition of one of their own is a little different, so he’s not quite always one of their own. So having excluded him, I would put RG, Yogi, Kejriwal and Priyanka Gandhi.

Now, this is an arbitrary choice. Let’s take Rahul Gandhi. I agree with you entirely in your book, that there is a perception that he is not hungry for power, but I think he’s a much-misunderstood man. He’s a person who has had an alternative vision, an alternative thinking, and perhaps he started the alternative vision and thinking before his time, before the time was right. For example, he talked about intraparty elections long, long ago, when it was not fashionable to do so. He talked about having internal elections, new faces, changing the guard. So, I do believe it was a mistake that he didn’t join the governments of two UPAs for 10 years. But having said that, his persistence, his stamina, an extremely clean image, contrary to whatever you might be told, and a lot of idealism, not necessarily good in politics, sometimes it makes him bite off more than he can chew, but I put him there for these reasons.

Yogi, age is on his side, certainly, yes, and a generally non-corrupt image. I think there are two issues there. One, the Rambo image is a double-edged sword. So, the Rambo cuts both ways. The second is clearly a non-inclusive image. I think that is where this is the plus and minus balance sheet of Mr. Yogi, whom I put in the list of four.

Arvind Kejriwal and not because I am representing him at all, has great talent, great talent. I believe that in terms of pure communication abilities and immediate, instant instinctive connect with the people, there are very few who can match his talent. And he also has this ability to simplify the most complex of ideas in terms of connectivity with the people. He, again, has age on his side. And as I told Priya on the telephone, in a lighter way, he must have done something right if at one time, both the BJP and the Congress were gunning for him, and even wanting to perhaps join hands to gun for him.

Lastly, a highly underestimated name, Priyanka Gandhi. There are very few persons who have that natural charisma and a natural leadership quality. And instinctive, the word Priya uses is very accurate for her. She’s an instinctive connector with people. I call her a natural leader. She also has a natural ability to take charge. I remember I was in the same room shortly after Madhav Rao Scindia’s untimely death, and she and Sonia-ji entered together, and about 10 minutes later, Modi-ji and Jaitley-ji came, she took charge of the whole devastated scene. It was, of course, a very sad moment, a tragic moment. So, she has very special qualities. It’s a different matter if, when she decides to take a full plunge or a half plunge, but I would certainly put her right up there. That’s a candid answer to a difficult question.

Priya Sahgal: Well, thank you, Dr. Singhvi, for taking the plunge and at least coming up with a sort of a list. I’ll ask Pavan first because since we all measuring ourselves against the benchmark of Modi. In this list of names Pavan, do you see anyone with potential, that you know?

Pavan Varma: Now, for, since for the moment, I’m not part of any political party. I don’t have to defend the indefensible so I can be a little more objective. First of all, I am quite surprised by some exclusions. You haven’t put Tejashwi Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav’s son, Rahul Gandhi has not married, we’ll have to wait for some time.

Secondly, I think Mr. Ram Madhav would be very annoyed with this book because he’s not included. Yogi Adityanath is there but I wonder what Mr. Amit Shah thinks, what Mr. Rajnath thinks, but they’re all above that age. But this is only my opening remarks.

You see, the thing is this, you have taken a list of people who are prominent in the public sphere, but to conflate it with their ability to assume the role of leadership as a contender on a pan-India basis is an entirely different question, because it requires a different approach, a different tenacity, a different determination, and a different level of dedication and sacrifice. The point I’m really making is that the leaders, and they’re all people I mostly know, they all have talent. They have potential. Can that talent and potential catapult them into a state of being a contender for power, is what I question. If you give me another two minutes, to slightly elaborate upon, first of all, many of them are more entitled than they deserve, by which I mean that with due apologies to my very good friend, Manu Bhai, how much optimism can any Congress person have to believe that Rahul Gandhi can deliver?

I mean we have the Lok Sabha polls and he should be the commander at headquarters. He’s on a Bharat Jodo Yatra. And unless it’s fantasy, you cannot build a first floor of a building without a foundation. Now, here is a party for which initially I have great respect because I’m going to ruffle a few feathers, but in private, they will all agree with me. You see, unless there is a structure, the Congress party’s idea as originally conceived, is still relevant. The Congress party’s leadership, and the party at present is unable to carry that idea forward in electorally effective terms. And this has been demonstrated once, twice, thrice. And I don’t know how many more chances the party will give him. So, I rule out Rahul Gandhi completely. As far as Priyanka Gandhi is concerned, great respect for her. I also know her, but she’s totally untested. I mean, I don’t know of any party where merely because you are the daughter of the former president of the party, you become one of the top most holders in the Congress without having won a single election and to play a role, which is so decisive and important at the very apex of the organization. So, she’s untested. Now, the other problem with some of the other contenders is that they are highly localized.

I mean, let’s take Jayant Chaudhary, he’s a beneficiary of a very important legacy of the farmers. But you see, he’s got restricted to the Western UP belt, a couple of seats. He’s young, but he doesn’t have the tenacity to continue to expand his base. It is something that Mayawati did. The real revolutionary was Kashiram, who actually thought that a Pan India movement on the basis of the rights of Dalits could be conceived of. And in numerical terms, it does. But his legacy was betrayed by Mayawati. So, the other problem is that lack of resolve. I have a very dear friend of mine for whom I have great respect, Sachin Pilot, who is there in the book. Now, he has been sort of strung along by the Congress party and the family at its head for so long, and I think it’s been unfair to him.

Now, another person, Jyotiraditya Scindia, again a very dynamic leader, but the temptation to make a quick deal, rather than a long-term goal has put him in a situation where he is in a setup, where there is a glass ceiling.

I think, Nirmala Sitharaman is the only one, who is the miracle of politics in the BJP, having not come from the RSS. And in the Congress, of the other miracle of politics is a very good friend of mine called Rajiv Shukla, who has never won an election, but he’s always there as somebody important.

So lastly, I want to end these preliminary remarks by saying that if you are to be a contender, you have to be a charismatic face. You have to have a vision; you have to be able to sacrifice. The BJP had that tendency when it was reduced to two seats in parliament. But you will see the minimum amount of hemorrhaging from the party in spite of many offers by the ruling parties. They stayed where they were, and they fought, and they fought, and they fought. And today, fortunately or unfortunately, they’re where they are. The point I’m making is that you have to have a face, a leadership, a vision, a narrative, an organization, and a pan-Indian network, okay? And the ability for old fashioned street politics, unless you have that, you’ll remain prominent in the news, but you are not a contender.

Priya Sahgal: And this is only the preliminary remarks, so I don’t know what his next set of remarks is going to be. But Ram Madhav-ji, basically when Rahul Gandhi refused to engage the lost decade for 10 years of UPA, he stayed out of power. So, a second rung could not be built, whether it was Jyotiraditya or Sachin Pilot, they all had to be cut out of power. Are the Modi years also the lost decade? Because nobody can aspire. The second rung is also coming up, but they hit that proverbial glass ceiling.

Ram Madhav: Firstly, let me congratulate you for revising the book that you published in 2019. Thank you. My best wishes to you for another revision in 2029 which you will obviously do. Then I have two suggestions for 2029 when you revise it. Number one, please change the title from contenders to rising leaders or something like that.

My second suggestion would be to probably pick up people in the age group of 35- 40. That will be probably a better choice because PM Modi has announced that 2047 is his target. So don’t try to be in a hurry to find contenders. When there is no vacancy, how can you find contenders? But more importantly, I have a more serious point to make in this sense that had you written something like that in 2003, would you have included Manmohan Singh in that list? Had you written something like this in 2012, would you have included Modi in this list? Probably Modi would have found his name in 10 or 15 names, you included.

Take the names of the chief ministers. Would you have ever anticipated their names to be the chief ministers of those given states? In that I would like to humbly mention to our friends that other men, not other men. I don’t think BJP has any such kind of distinction between the leaders who are in the party. I handled India’s Northeast for six – seven years when I was the General Secretary of the party. You see all the BJPs chief ministers how come from Congress. So there is no such distinction. Nobody really thinks that he is an outsider. He should not become. That doesn’t mean anything that somebody who came, can become or cannot become. That’s not the issue. Who becomes this something is very difficult to predict in the Indian scenario? I mean, I only went back to 2003, but I was told that when Mr. Inder Kumar Gujral became the Prime Minister, he was woken up at one o’clock in the night and told that tomorrow morning, you ought to take the oath as Prime Minister. He said, are you joking? But he became the Prime Minister next day.

There are many more people as far as BJP is concerned. Some names have been taken up I mean, have been taken like Yogi, Amit Shahji, et cetera. I think there are, there are of course, very senior leaders with huge influence. And BJP has several such good leaders in the party. And today this discussion about whether they will become contenders for the top post becomes a little premature.

It’s like asking, when will your father die? I have a leader who is delivering, we have a leader who is the most popular leader in the country. This is not the time to discuss about who are the contenders and all that. In any case, as I said that it is not vacant for many more years to come. But yes, I would only say that the names that you have taken up are, are very important names. They are generally looked up to by people in sometimes in the states, but also they have a national appeal in a limited sense.

Priya Sahgal: So then, should we not have to elections for the next 15 years, I think it’s decided. So then, Dr. Singhvi?

Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi: I am candid to a point, but not beyond limits. Now but like very clever set of lawyers, both my non-lawyer friends have outdone lawyers today. I’ll tell you why. You trapped me with a question by saying, give me three or four names out of your list. I gave an honest, straightforward answer, very difficult, but candid answer to the best of my ability. I picked four. Both my friends have named nobody.

Number two, they have, therefore, impliedly said that all your 12-15 are not going to be prime ministers ever.

Number three, they should then, especially my friend, Mr. Verma, should have named a 13th or a 14th fellow, no name. Of course, I can understand Mr. Madhav’s compulsions. He cannot name anybody except numero uno. But the question is, your question has to be answered and not like a clever lawyer. The question itself can’t be rephrased that you said, who amongst these. Now, if you have a lot as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of governance, but is the best available one. So, you have now given a pool, I think the exclusions I’ve done in selecting for are valid exclusions. They’re all very talented, but they don’t have an all-India persona. They do not have an all India permanent connect with the minds.

He mentioned one name, Western UP. It is also, I think, a drawback and a tragedy of our system that we don’t immediately think of somebody from the South. For example, if Stalin had been a little younger, I know he’s more than 55, but had he been a little younger, he would not have figured in your list? This is one of our disconnects. Or maybe, the chief minister example is not good, Madhav-ji, because we are talking of Prime Ministers. You’ve picked up a lot of Congress chief ministers, but the glass ceiling hits when you talk Prime Minister, and that’s the truth. But the point I’m making is that you have to have in the next 10, 20, 30 years at least one or two of these names, because beyond these names, nobody suggested another name. And in that you can have a wish list. Now, I would like to know if there is a fifth and a sixth name, which is better in your list than the four names I’ve given. Amit Shah is not on your list, by the way?

Ram Madhav: Limited comment about my compulsion. I can understand his compulsion. Two names he took and both are Gandhi. In the Congress, only a Gandhi can become the Prime Minister. That’s his compulsion.

Priya Sahgal: But he took Yogi’s name also, to be fair to him.

Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi: I was wondering if you can take Yogi’s name at all.

Ram Madhav: Actually, I said, I said not Yogi alone. I said even took up Amit Shah’s name. And also said there are several others. But it’s a premature discussion because right now, of course, as I said, there is no such scope at all. Number two, no question of anybody from your party. In any case, I didn’t want to go to that level, but I only said that, you know, there are people in BJP.

Pavan Varma: First of all, I admire Mr. Ram Madhav-ji’s faith. Till 2047, we will have one leader in the BJP towards Amrit Kal. It’s a good thought, but the real problem is that politics is dynamic. And from where a leader arises when, in what circumstances, is something that is difficult to predict. So, if I can’t name from this list somebody else, I cannot rule out the fact that there could be. I mean, in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi, after she had defeated Pakistan and created Bangladesh with an absolute majority in parliament, and was called, although you deny now, ‘durga’ by your leader, at that time, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, she seemed to be invincible. But in four years’ time, she was compelled to impose the emergency. In 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi won and had the highest majority ever in parliament, even more than his mother and grandfather, he seemed quite invincible.

In fact, the opposition was not only decimated, it was embarrassingly decimated. And that’s where I give your, your party the credit that it had the resolve and the ideological commitment to continue the battle, but it was reduced to two seats. And who could have predicted that by 1989, Rajiv Gandhi would be struggling to survive and then lose an election.

In 1975, nobody thought that a rather unwell man, far above the age of 55, living in retirement in an ashram in Patna would suddenly wake up and become the catalyst around which a whole galaxy of young leaders gathered. I admire your faith, your devotion, your sense of loyalty and your awareness of the consequences if these are not expressed. But I think that even the BJP should understand – nobody’s indispensable in politics.

And also, remember a line which I like to quote, every pinnacle has the seeds of its own decline in its very genetic makeup. So, we wish Mr. Modi well and wish him a long life, but leadership in this country, have great faith, may come from those beyond this list, who are tired of the kind of politics we are playing, the kind of immorality, the kind of barren ideological landscape we have. And the fact of the matter is that it’s this democracy that will produce it right under your eyes.

Ram Madhav: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I totally agree with you that democratic process should throw up leaders, not you, me and Mr. Singhvi sitting here and deciding who should be the next leader, at least that much humility we should have. That’s what I said in the beginning when I said that this democracy threw up so many leaders, which we never anticipated, that they would become prime minister. They would become chief ministers. This country was ruled for 27 continuous years by Congress from 1950 to 1977. Indira, then had committed the blunder of imposing emergency in 1975. Had she not done that, as you at least said, she was at the pinnacle of her popularity and glory. I mean, history has no ifs and buts, I know. But who would have anticipated in 1974 that BJP would come to power, had anybody anticipated it? So, I agree that a party could rule for 27 years, give at least 27 years to be BJP, not necessarily to Modi. That would take us to 2041!

Pavan Varma: That will be democratically decided.

Ram Madhav: So, when it comes to that, you say, democratically decided that, but you’re ready to roll out names from all parties. I say you named 10 people. There are 20 people. There can be people from the audience; who knows, it could even be somebody from the audience, India’s democracy has that strength, and you know, who has seen the future?

Priya Sahgal: On that note, can we discuss another person who we haven’t discussed, which I think is, you know, there’s always the disruptor, the X factor, which is Arvind Kejriwal. He is someone from the way I observed him also he’s the only 24 by seven politician. He’s the only non-dynast in that sense, who’s also willing to put in what it takes. He’s matching Modi headline for headline. He has the same gumption. What he doesn’t have is a party or a pan India organization, which he will have, once the opposition rallies behind him. He certainly has become the face of the opposition, at least for now?

Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi: Well, I’ve said he’s a very talented person, ambitious, hardworking, and has a remarkable connect. And if you observe him closely, his connect extends to be able to simplifying a concept which is complex and connecting with the people. I think his worst enemies also give him that. Now, it’s true he doesn’t have an organization, but he’s expanding. I mean, just consider one thing or two things. If as powerful an organization as the BJP has spent the last year or so with the maximum focus and energies, more than any other party in India, on the Kejriwal AAP party, both in Delhi, in Punjab, and elsewhere, as I said, he must be doing something right. It’s as simple as that. Number one.

Number two, we had 15 years of Sheila Dixit in Delhi. She faced a central government of the Congress. She faced a central government of the BJP, including Sushma Swaraj and very briefly Madan Lal Khurana, have you ever put your hand in your heart and asked that question?

Have you ever seen the kind of disruptive behaviour on the same constitutional plane between the central government and the state government of Delhi ever? Irrespective of political colour, the Constitution hasn’t changed. Indeed, Kejriwal has two judgments in his favour after that on the interpretation of the Constitution. So, there must be, again, either some fear or some apprehension or some sense of competition. Otherwise, no central government will behave like this for state government with a 67/3 figure.

Thirdly, you see today also, and I mean, it’s a sub juris matter. So, it’s not, it’s not one person. You have the top four people of that party and many more top four behind, and many more on the scanner – which other party has suffered that. So, as I said, if there is a threat perception of that degree, there must be something there. It’s a question you have to ask yourself. Now, what happens in the future, in the womb of the future? Nobody knows. I’m not talking legality. I’m appearing in all those cases. That doesn’t matter. I’m sufficiently objective not to be clouded by that. And I’m not talking law, not talking, merits. I’m just saying that the political question you asked, it is certainly something which should make you sit up and think.

Ram Madhav: Mr. Singhvi is Kejriwal’s lawyer, obviously he will say good things about him. My simple point is Mr. Kejriwal is a very overrated politician. He’s a darling of sections of media, because Rahul Gandhi is not working. Probably this guy will work. That is the whole hope, with that hope you hype him. However much you hype him. You can only talk about Delhi and Punjab, everywhere else that party came such a cropper, no other state. But you still say that he is the challenge to Modi. Where is that question coming from? I mean, we have actually given up on your own leaders now. You think that Kejriwal will challenge him? Where are we heading? He’s very over rated. He had his constituents; he has got his own support base in Delhi. Fair enough. There are such leaders in many states.

There was this mention about Mr. Stalin. Stalin had his base in Tamil Nadu. To the extent that there are strong regional leaders is fine, but to create an impression that, he will tomorrow go and challenge this government. No, that’s not going to happen. I don’t think that’s a very real assessment. Assess him correctly. He’s a strong leader in Delhi. No doubt. We faced him twice. We could not defeat him twice. We’ll see the third election when it comes, but he is not a contender for that top post.

Priya Sahgal: Last round before we moving away from Arvind Kejriwal and PMLA. The messaging, if the opposition doesn’t have a face, Dr. Singhvi, we at least you should have a good message, you’ve come up with a good manifesto.

Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi: There’s no doubt. I mean, messaging, narrative, infrastructure, cardre at the bottom. These are all very important down to the booth level. Nobody’s saying that you just put a leader on a name and you go and win elections. I have also no hesitation in saying that they have a remarkable mascot in Mr. Modi. His whole persona is larger than life. There’s no doubt about it. But to your question, in terms of content and message, I don’t think we have made any big blunders. We have got fairly comprehensive messaging. The problem is of various other factors. There is of course, a problem of having a very strong leader in Mr. Modi. He has caught the imagination of the public of India. There is equally the problem of funds. You have to go down to the level and see the difference in funds.

Elections in India, you like it or not, depend on funds. The ratio is all the parties in India put together multiplied by three. And it is, well below the BJP total, and that is only the declared one. So, I think we have a number of factors. So messaging is of course there. I think we worked hard at the manifesto. We disagree, but to just call it a Muslim league manifesto is, I leave it you to judge, you to read parts of it. You know, if you talk of inclusiveness, if you talk of certain left of centre views, it doesn’t become a Muslim League manifesto, nor does it become a CPM manifesto. So I think that is part of Mr. Modi’s very strong style of messaging. It doesn’t make it the truth. And all that we are talking about, of course, can be dealt with by Mr. Modi in one sentence which Mr. Madhav has not said. This is all Lutyens’ Delhi’s nonsense to that there is no answer. If rationality is bad, then Lutyens’ Delhi is also bad.

Pavan Varma: People like us who are often put in that bracket Mr. Madhav was right, and frankly, the Congress party cannot deny it. There was misuse of agencies in the past also, but many of us did not realize that we were wrong in our realization that the BJP is a party with the difference. And today that Khan market gang is wondering if they’re all the same.

But the real point I want to end on is that it’s not only about contenders from outside. I think that any contender from within the BJP also, must tread very wearily because Mr. Ram Madhav said there is absolutely no vacancy till 2047. So, the moment somebody emerges or is likely to emerge sometimes action can be very quick.

Mr. Madhav himself is aware of it. So, you know the point that I am making is that there is for the first time in my life, and I was very close to Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I have great respect for him, and I have also respect of certain aspects of the analysis. I have seen a national political party so publicly marginalized by its own leader. Everything is one person’s guarantee. The party doesn’t figure, sir. And it has happened for the first time in the BJP, which was always a collegial party.

Ram Madhav: I may not fully agree with that analysis of yours about the party and the leadership. I would probably end by saying, in a slightly broader and larger context, we have entered a totally different era in our lives. It’s a very technologically driven era. Democratic processes have to undergo certain change. You can’t stick to your national political practices and jump up and down that you, we are not getting space and all that. This is the era of technology. This is the era of new modes of communication. You ought to be using all those things. You ought to be appealing to the larger sections of the society. That is where the leadership of BJP has great advantage over other parties. While you are stuck in your caste politics, you are stuck in your family politics. BJP has gone far, far ahead. It is not just leadership alone. Leadership is important for BJP. But may I tell you that in this country we have about one 1 million plus polling stations. The BJP has got its units in 850,000 polling stations. Why are you not taking it into account? Why do you think only because of Modi? Modi is important. And we have entered in an era in the whole world, not just in India, please remember, of dominant democracy, dominant leadership. I’m not saying dominant democracy in the sense that you have to have a dominant idea and you have to have a dominant leadership. Then you have to have that kind of following you have to create. Why these much-hated right-wing parties are coming back to power in country after country in Europe because today’s politics is about a dominant idea, a dominant leadership and a dominant way of reaching the people. That is the new politics today.

BJP is well versed about the new politics of the day. It is putting it in action. That is why the results are coming. Modi-ji’s leadership is paramount, but the party’s organizational structure and the idea, the cultural idea that touches the minds and hearts of millions and millions of opinions is also equally important.

Priya Sahgal: Thank you all for this conversation. In fact, actually, what are we arguing about? Because you know what they say, okay? The Congress Nehru has now become Congress – Modi, they all have joined you anyway. But on that note, I thank my panelists for a very feisty debate and my audience. Thank you all for coming and for being a part of my day.


Priya Sahgal is the Editorial Director at NewsX channel where she hosts three award winning shows. A political journalist for over three decades, her forte is explanatory journalism. She is a product of Welhams Girls School and St Stephen’s College, where she did her Masters in English.

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