NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named on Monday senior leader Lal Krishna Advani as their prime ministerial candidate for polls due in 2009, aiming to fill a vacuum at the top of the struggling party.
The decision by the BJP came on the eve of the first stage of voting in communally polarised Gujarat, where the party and its controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi, are going all out to retain power.
Advani, 80, represents Gujarat in the national parliament and some analysts said the move seemed like an attempt to influence voters to strongly back the party in what is also one of India’s most developed states.
“General elections are not far,” BJP President Rajnath Singh told reporters after a party parliamentary board meeting. “The parliamentary board has unanimously decided that Lal Krishna Advani will lead the party in elections.”
Party leaders said the move was being discussed within the organisation for a while and a decision was taken after former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the party’s most-famous face, stepped back due to his poor health.
The BJP has struggled for direction since its 2004 defeat and its second rung leaders failed to forge unity after Advani stepped down as party president in 2005.
But the party is hoping to regain power as the ruling Congress and its communist allies are locked in a face-off over a controversial nuclear deal with the United States and the confrontation has even sparked fears of early elections.
Advani said he was thankful to the party and prayed “that god gives me the ability to be able to discharge this responsibility and fulfil expectations”.
Advani is leader of the opposition in parliament and was deputy prime minister in Vajpayee’s government which was swept out of power in a shock election defeat in 2004.
While Vajpayee was seen as the moderate face of the Hindu nationalist party, Advani was considered a hawkish hardliner and a shrewd politician who was at the forefront of a Hindu revivalist campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s which saw the BJP move to the centrestage of Indian politics.
However, since coming to power at the head of a rainbow coalition in 1998, he has cultivated a moderate image to gain acceptability among a larger section of voters and regional coalition allies, analysts say.