Harsh Vardhan: Born lucky?

In politics, calculation matters. But so does luck. Take Union Cabinet Minister for Health, Harsh Vardhan. In some other time and place, he could hardly have shone the way he’s doing now: true, he would have been health minister and a reasonably competent one. But being a doctor and also a health administrator, Covid-19 has propelled him into a place in the sun that he could only have hoped for. And that’s the story of his life: that he was born lucky.

Harsh Vardhan is an otolaryngologist surgeon: to you and me, ENT. He is a successful and well-known doctor and came into contact with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1969 but grew in stature because of his philanthropic medical work. He launched his political career by contesting Delhi’s first post-statehood Assembly election in 1993 though he’d had no exposure to political work till then beyond supporting the JP movement against the Emergency in 1975. The man from the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) tipped to contest the election was Yog Dhyan Ahuja. He was replaced by Harsh Vardhan at the Sangh’s insistence. His election as MLA was the first streak of luck.

As soon as the Assembly was formed, he was appointed health minister in the Madan Lal Khurana government. Later, he was given the education portfolio and his sole reform was to do away with the subjective element of interviews in hiring teachers for state government schools: which meant that a candidate from an obscure university in UP or Bihar was on a par with a candidate from Delhi University with no proven ability to actually be qualified to teach schoolchildren. In 1996, Madan Lal Khurana, whose name occurred in the Jain diaries along with L K Advani, was asked by the BJP to resign. Amazingly, Harsh Vardhan’s name was mentioned as a replacement, largely by the Sangh, though by then he had completed only three years in active politics. The RSS’s influence didn’t work and Sahib Singh Verma became chief minister but it did put Vardhan in the reckoning for the top job .

In 1998, Sushma Swaraj was made the party’s face for the Assembly elections. In the 2003 Assembly elections, Madan Lal Khurana returned as the nominee for Chief Minister but the party lost the elections. During this debacle, Harsh Vardhan was party president, which says something for the performance of the BJP.

Despite this, the BJP didn’t really punish him. This was largely because the central BJP’s Delhi leadership never saw him as a threat, unlike the more pushy and competitive Vijay Goel who was the other face of the BJP’s Vaishya constituency in Delhi. Ahead of the 2013 Assembly election when the BJP’s chances of forming the government were the brightest, the two big leaders of Delhi, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, who couldn’t see eye to eye on anything ever, became unlikely partners in a Stop Vijay Goel campaign. Their mascot? Harsh Vardhan. Two weeks before the election, Goel was told to step down from the presidentship of the party in favour of Harsh Vardhan. So luck was really on his side.

But in 2013, the BJP got only 32 seats in the 70-member Assembly. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) staked claim and formed the government for 49 days. Harsh Vardhan was leader of the Opposition. The BJP opted to recommend dissolution of the Assembly rather than stake claim to form the government. Goel was crushed and pushed out of Delhi politics, which was the top leadership’s aim. Vardhan was nowhere in contention as central rule was imposed. Elections to the Assembly were held in 2015.

Meanwhile, the 2014 general election came around. Harsh Vardhan had met Narendra Modi in 1996, introduced to him by L K Advani. He opted to contest the general election from Chandni Chowk, although East Delhi was his area of work. Again, luck worked in his favour. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad veteran and former Delhi University Students’ Union President Sudhanshu Mittal was to contest from the seat. But Arun Jaitley prodded Vardhan to claim the seat to prevent Mittal. Vardhan won. He was made health minister in the Modi cabinet: but made the cardinal mistake of alienating the powerful chief of the Medical Council of India (MCI), Ketan Desai (arrested for corruption later in the private medical college scam). He was sent off as minister for Earth Sciences but was retained in the council of minister. Meanwhile, in 2015, the man, once thought to be important enough to be Delhi chief minister, had to stand by and watch Kiran Bedi demolish the BJP’s slender chances in the capital. He didn’t seem to mind — he hadn’t lost his ministership, luckily. In 2019, he decided to stick to his constituency and is health minister when India needs a health minister the most!

Wouldn’t you call that luck?



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