It is difficult to persuade the holders of high office that the time has come for them to gracefully step aside. Ask the Catholic Church. It was as far back as 1294 AD that Pope Celestine decided that ill-health made it impossible for him to carry out Papal functions, and hence stepped aside. After that, it was Pope Benedict who on 28 February 2013 handed over the papacy to a successor, Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. There are those, including many within the Catholic faith, who have had issues with Pope Benedict’s unbending opposition to liberal tendencies, but none can deny that by his resignation, the former Cardinal of Munich revealed a grace that few have exhibited before or since. In the somewhat more dusty field of politics, had Helmut Kohl stepped down as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1998 before trying to further extend his 16-year stint in office via a fresh election, he may have been remembered more kindly by his people. After all, it was Kohl , who, together with Francois Mitterand, crafted the Maastricht Treaty, which became the foundation for the modern European Union. It was Kohl who oversaw the re-unification of Germany, even if he had been a trifle over-generous to his eastern cousins, a very un-German profligacy for which taxpayers in the Federal Republic are paying for to this day.
As happened to Winston Churchill at the time of his greatest triumph in 1945, Helmut Kohl was defeated at the hands of the despised Social Democrats. However, next to Africa, where the apparently ageless Robert Mugabe continues on his mission of driving his country into the sand, it is in India that politicians carry on for what seems an eternity to their party colleagues. Jawaharlal Nehru was showing his age by 1958, but in deference to the belief of numerous essayists, who saw him as crucial to the very survival of India, he soldiered on, making errors of judgment that haunt the country to this day. Even after the 1962 defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong, a defeat caused by bad policy implemented through personal favourites of scant ability, Nehru flicked aside any thoughts of stepping down, grimly hanging on until his physical frame gave way less than two years later. His party was, at least for the record, as insistent on his carrying on to the end as the BJP was in the case of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was visibly in poor health by the middle of 2003. Indeed, the then Prime Minister graciously offered to step down, only to be greeted by a cacophony of wails from his party colleagues beseeching him to stay, despite his ill-health and the obvious attraction of retirement in the bosom of his family. A similar wailing took place in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi announced her decision not to become Prime Minister, although in her case, she persevered with this decision, unlike Vajpayee, who quickly withdrew his offer to quit, only to be turfed out of office by the electorate a year later.
Had the chorus asking Vajpayee to reconsider his desire to quit been ignored and L.K. Advani taken over from Vajpayee in 2003, the BJP may have remained the party of government a year later. Except to the higher-ups in the BJP, it was clear that the cadre of that party were disillusioned with Vajpayee. They saw him as following a “Congress like” agenda, rather than seeking to implement at least a few of the measures that the saffron party had for years been proclaiming as its reason for existence. In the 2004 polls, a significant chunk of core BJP voters stayed away from the voting booth, even as several of the cadre worked less than enthusiastically for a BJP victory. An Advani-BJP would in 2004 have spelt change, the way a Modi-BJP will next year, provided Narendra Modi provides a clean break with the past by refusing to field those discredited by two successive defeats in general elections. These lines are being written in Tamil Nadu, where too there is a soft Modi wave. Provided that the present, hugely discredited, state leaders of the BJP there and elsewhere are denied tickets in favour of fresh faces. 400 fresh faces in the Lok Sabha polls, to be exact. The remainder can be given to party hacks, and should be told to contest from difficult seats in view of their vast experience. Visiting BJP headquarters at Akbar Road, there is no indication that the party has learnt anything from the victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. The hacks, especially the senior most, are busy stitching suits for the swearing in after what would essentially be Modi’s victory. But if they swamp the lists of candidates, then it will not be the BJP that will head the next government, despite the Modi wave.
Winston Churchill once spoke of giving a peerage to a superannuated politician — not himself, as of that date — so that “it becomes a disappearage”. There are several Helmut Kohls in the higher echelons of today’s BJP. They need to accept that the public want change, which is why they are for Narendra Modi, and for a 21st century team that is not simply a retread from a failed past.