Political circles may have been somewhat surprised by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s pick of the lesser-known Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate. Monday’s announcement of Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu as the BJP’s candidate for vice president turned out to only be surprising in how straightforward it was. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have been known to pull out unusual names, whether in the case of Kovind or while picking chief ministers of various states. By that measure, Naidu is their most bread-and-butter pick yet.
This is not to say he doesn’t have the credentials for the job. From the view of the BJP and Sangh Parivar, he ticks almost every box: longtime RSS member, stalwart supporter of Hindutva, vocal fan of Modi and even a Hindi proselytiser, despite hailing from the South. He has had four terms in the Rajya Sabha and has been president of the BJP in the past. Over the last few years, he has been a key feature of Modi’s Cabinet, though he was shunted off his initial assignment as Parliamentary Affairs minister and put in charge of Information & Broadcasting, in addition to the Housing and Urban Development ministry portfolio he has held since 2014.
Naidu will be going up against Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former Indian Administrative Services officer, diplomat and governor, whom the Opposition picked as its candidate. Nominations for the post close on Tuesday, with elections due on August 5. The result will be announced on the same day.
In May, when Naidu was asked about rumours regarding his candidacy, he said, “I neither want to become rashtrapati [president] nor do I want to become uprashtrapati [vice president].” Instead, he invoked his wife, saying “I am happy being Usha’s pati”, Usha’s husband. Despite that statement, there were some rumours that Naidu was lobbying for the top post, president, and had to be persuaded to accept the vice-presidential post.
The role would take Naidu away from electoral politics, without him ever having ascended to one of the Raisina Hill ministries – Home, Defence, Finance and External Affairs. But that does not mean he will no longer have any politics to play with. Indeed, the vice president is not simply a figurehead to be sent on diplomatic missions around the world. The post also happens to include chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha.
The Upper House of India’s Parliament has been hostile to the BJP over the last few years, since it is still controlled by the Opposition. The potential for disagreement in the Rajya Sabha has been so threatening to the ruling alliance that it has chosen to introduce legislation only vaguely connected to taxation as money bills, which do not need assent from the Upper House to become law. The schedule of elections to the Rajya Sabha is such that, though the BJP-run National Democratic Alliance may become the largest grouping by 2018, it won’t be close to a majority until 2020.
Having Naidu, a career politician with close ties to leaders from across the spectrum, be the chairman of the house gives the BJP hope that it will be better suited to control events in the Rajya Sabha even as it waits to gain a majority. Having Naidu out of his ministeries won’t necessarily hamper their functioning. The veteran politician not exactly doing a scintillating job, with even the flagship Smart Cities scheme seeming to drop off in the last few months.
Naidu was not successful as Parliamentary Affairs minister, when his job was specifically to carry out floor management and work with other parties. In 2016, with several major legislative failures under his belt, Naidu was moved out of that position and replaced by Ananth Kumar. But the chairmanship role is less about floor management than procedure and goodwill, and Naidu happens to be the rare candidate steeped in RSS ideology who has still managed to build relatively positive relations with other politicians across the spectrum.
If Naidu does win, as he is likely to, a reshuffle or expansion in Modi’s cabinet also seems likely. Naidu gives up two important portfolios and the defence ministry has been an additional charge for Finance Minister Arun Jaitley every since Manohar Parrikar returned to Goa. Once the vice presidential election process has been completed attention, with the Monsoon session of Parliament also winding up soon after, attention will likely turn to the question of who Modi will add to his Cabinet and how other ministers will be evaluated more than three years into this administration’s tenure.