These days it is not the number of followers that make or break leaders. It is television.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley first earned his spurs on television. The lawyer with the razor-sharp brain used his debating skills to the hilt to put across the party's case on sundry issues.
In sharp contrast, a major factor in the BJP's failure to wrest Delhi from the Congress in the assembly election last year was the unprepossessing image of local party boss Madan Lal Khurana. Compared to Khurana, Chief Minister Shiela Dixit of the Congress looked suave and dignified on television.
Aware of the growing role of television in disseminating their points of view, all parties now detail representatives to various private and state-owned news and current affairs channels. The BJP and the Congress have drawn up a panel of leaders who are expected to represent them on various television debates.
Regional outfits like the Samajwadi Party and BSP may not boast of much telegenic talent, but leaders like Amar Singh and Mayawati can be relied upon to ably defend their respective sides.
The CPI-M has Sitaram Yechuri doing duty for it on television though even the octogenarian Harkishen Singh Surjeet is not averse to putting in the occasional appearance.
The trouble arises when, in the absence or non-availability of the short-listed television-friendly leaders, various channels shop around for lesser politicians to go ahead with the planned programmes. Though these politicians have the natural human desire to see themselves on television, they are unable to articulate their party's point of view convincingly.
The other day, at least two senior BJP leaders were seething with rage when Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Verma showed up with Delhi Chief Minister Dixit on a television channel indulging in his usual 'tu-tu-main-main.' Dixit was the picture of calm and reason while Verma was his usual aggressive self.
The party bosses were so incensed, they wanted to issue a directive banning Verma from appearing on television henceforth. But once their rage had cooled, they decided to break the news to Verma as gently as possible fearing that a 'directive' would be misunderstood.
Another BJP politician on whom television news channels fall back whenever they cannot get an Arun Jaitley or a Pramod Mahajan is B P Singhal, member of the Rajya Sabha. But senior BJP leaders lack the courage to ask him to desist from trying to represent the party on television, though he too does not quite strike the right chord with viewers.
When opportunity strikes
If you think Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar is the only one to change his views on the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi's fitness to become prime minister, think again.
Pawar, who, on the eve of the last general election in 1999, had split the Congress on the issue of Gandhi's foreign origin, has ceased to oppose her prime ministerial claim so that he can tie up with her party for the parliamentary election.
But Pawar need not be embarrassed. He is in good company with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi, Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Vaiko and Marumalarchi DMK leader S Ramadoss.
As members of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance, all three Tamil leaders were signatories to the NDA policy document released at the time of the last general election.
What's wrong with that, you may ask. Nothing much, except that the policy document promised, among other things, to put in place a law barring naturalised citizens from holding the three constitutional posts of President, vice-president and prime minister.
Now all three leaders, who have teamed up with the Congress, deny having signed such a document, but BJP leaders have it in their possession and are determined to use it in their campaign in Tamil Nadu.
Old habits die hard
The late Indira Gandhi had banned donations by corporate entities to political parties because she believed that a large chunk of the donations under her socialist dispensation was going to the pro-capitalist Swatantra Party, since defunct, and the Jan Sangh, precursor of the present-day BJP.
Being in power, her Congress did not have any difficulty mustering funds despite her anti-big industry, anti-capitalist rhetoric. The moneybags were always eager to keep her in good humour.
Now, more than three decades later, when the Vajpayee government has made it legit for companies to give donations to political parties by crossed cheques and claim tax deductions on them, corporate czars are finding it hard to change their ways.
Thus, most of them still give a large chunk of the money to political parties in cash. The ruling BJP, which is widely seen as the favourite to retain power, is flush with funds, but some 80 percent of these is said to be in hard cash.
Rare indeed is the industrialist or businessman who is willing to make out a cheque for, say, Rs 1 crore. But some of them do not mind paying twice that amount in bundles of currency notes packed in disposable suitcases or gunnybags delivered by trusted flunkeys to their favourite politician at a mutually agreed place.
But don't let this fool you into believing that political parties sit on mountains of cash. All of them quickly convert this money into 'legitimate' political funding by depositing it in their bank accounts after cooking their books to show that it was given by fictitious well-wishers in amounts ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 20,000, the permissible upper limit for individual donations.
The colour of money
The recently established Farmers Commission is set to lose its founding member-secretary R C A Jain to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Within a couple of weeks of the Commission being set up with former agriculture minister Som Pal as chairman, Jain is headed for Manila as a middle-rung representative of the FAO.
Ironically, it was Jain who, as Union agriculture secretary, had successfully pushed the proposal for the Commission.
Having more or less selected himself as the new panel's member-secretary upon his retirement, Jain was assured of a decent sinecure and, of course, a bungalow, car and phone for at least five years more.
Yet, not wanting to take chances, he had been simultaneously networking for the FAO assignment. And when it came through, it did not take him long to choose. The FAO pay packet in tax-free greenbacks was obviously far more attractive.
Given Amarinder Singh's weakness for the good life, the Opposition Shiromani Akali Dal has issued posters depicting the Punjab chief minister enjoying himself with the caption reading, 'Ais to ilaba do saala chi ki kita? (What else did you do in two years of your rule apart from living it up?)'
The people of Punjab will decide in the ensuing parliamentary election whether that image is true or false.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh