"Log to chhup-chhup ke ghoos dete hain, hum to khule aam de rahe the (People bribe covertly, I was doing it in broad daylight)"
—BJP leader Lalji Tandon after the Lucknow
sari stampede in which 22 women died
Election 2004 had been billed as a presidential contest. As the BJP liked to put it, it is Atal Behari Vajpayee versus a question mark. But the man at the axis of the entire BJP-NDA campaign hasn't been himself since the April 12 stampede in Lucknow. The frown lines on his forehead look somewhat more pronounced and he has been making remarks that reveal a disturbed mind. He seems tired and there have been whispers that he is inclined to give it all up. In short, question marks abound.
First, Vajpayee confounded his own party and the entire NDA brass when he said he was tired of running large coalitions. This was a curious statement from the consensus man who had made his pet coinage, "coalition dharma", very much an article of faith—a man who realises it is the NDA and not merely the BJP that is his biggest strength. Then Vajpayee set off endless speculation when he told a TV channel that the BJP had decided on his successor. He told yet another TV network that he could not understand the arithmetic employed by pollsters and wondered how the NDA was shown to be getting so many seats. Hardly the sort of statements the political class expected from a man whose popularity continues to touch flattering heights and who remains the fulcrum of the coalition. But at the back of his mind is Lucknow and the other bad news of the month, in the form of his "old friend" Ram Jethmalani.
So even though the exit polls predicted more or less a clear victory for the ruling combine, Vajpayee has been troubled. Those close to him point out that at heart the PM is a pessimist who doesn't get carried way. There are various interpretations...