The implosion of BJP

Shekhar Iyer

India, Dec. 1 -- As the tech-savvy Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi took to 3D imaging recently for crowds to view him as if he was speaking to them in person, a top BJP leader couldn't help but remark, "Joh dikhta hai, woh hai nahi; aur joh hai, woh dikhta nahi!" (What appears real is only apparent, and what is apparent, is not real)

Whether he was hinting at Modi or not, that remark could well be applicable to the BJP itself, say party insiders. With hardly a year left for the next Lok Sabha elections, convulsions in the party have been giving the impression that the BJP is on the verge of collapse and have raised the question: can the party ever emerge as an alternative to the Congress-led UPA?

There's little doubt that the current events in the BJP resemble the internal disorders of 2009 and 2004, which happened soon after the party lost the Lok Sabha polls. This time, they are happening even before the battle is lost, raising a host of questions within the party and outside: have senior BJP leaders been blinded by ambition? Are they prisoners of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)? What happened to the intentions to make the BJP a modern party minus its old ideological baggage?

The suspension of a maverick like Ram Jethmalani and the BJP's constant putting down of anyone with a different point of view (Jaswant Singh earlier, and now there are signs that Shatrughan Sinha and Yashwant Sinha are also in trouble) seems to point at a deeply divided party antithetical to freedom of thought and discourse and therefore, actually against inner party democracy, which the BJP claims is its hallmark.

Genesis of the BJP's woes

Insiders, however, believe the current crisis has less to do with inner party democracy and more with the frustrated ambitions of a whole generation of aging leaders. They foresee more internal fighting unless wisdom dawns on those at the helm due to pressure from the rank and file. The current troubles in the BJP came to the fore in May this year when the RSS insisted and LK Advani concurred, and the remaining BJP leaders reluctantly agreed - for want of a consensus on any other candidate - on a second term for 55-year-old Nitin Gadkari. Gadkari had been handpicked by the Sangh to rebuild the party from scratch towards the end of 2009. At that time, Modi had turned down the offer from Advani and the RSS to head the BJP because he didn't want to shift before he had ensured a third term for the party in Gujarat. Manohar Parrikar, currently Goa chief minister, was another choice but he lost out because of an inadvertent remark on Advani.

In the three years since his appointment, Gadkari, who is an outsider to Delhi's political circles, has rubbed many seniors the wrong way with his unconventional style. The disappointing results in UP this year (where the poll campaign was supervised by Gadkari) and his decision to nominate businessmen Anshuman Mishra and Ajay Sanchetti to the Rajya Sabha also upset many. As a result, Gadkari had to cancel Mishra's nomination and was forced to re-nominate SS Ahluwalia, who, however, lost the Rajya Sabha poll from Jharkhand.

Despite Gadkari's unpopularity, the not-so-hidden hand of the RSS ensured he got a second term. RSS leaders also endorsed a patch-up between Gadkari and Modi at the party's national executive meet in Mumbai on May 24-25. As a result, Gadkari had to sacrifice his close aide, Sanjay Joshi, earlier general secretary of the BJP and a known critic of Modi. The move caused some resentment in sections of the RSS and the BJP but the overriding objective of bringing Modi to the centre stage was accomplished.

But, on May 31, even before the ink on the Gadkari-Modi pact had dried, Advani went public with a blog post that stated the BJP wasn't ready for 2014 even though the popularity of the Congress was waning. He had made the same point at the conclave but clearly had wanted to drive the message home at a time when Modi's reappearance at the BJP meet had made headlines. Around that time, posters backing Sanjay Joshi surfaced in Delhi and in Gujarat.

The Role of Advani and his future

Advani, 85, has never forgiven the RSS and other BJP leaders for scaling down his role after the 2009 poll debacle. At the time, his projection as the prime ministerial candidate was drowned by internal bickering and by the Congress party's ability to project a better alternative in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Advani was supposed to play the role of an elder statesman but he wanted to have the final word, just as Vajpayee had until ill health overtook him. Advani was firm that the RSS should not micro-manage the BJP, while the RSS did not think Advani could be the last word as he had not capped his own ambitions.

Subsequently, Advani was very upset that he was asked to vacate the post of leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha in favour of 60-year-old Sushma Swaraj. Swaraj worked out a compromise by creating the post of chairman of the BJP parliamentary post, a position similarly enjoyed by Sonia Gandhi, in addition to her being the chairperson of the UPA and president of the Congress.

74-year-old Jaswant Singh (who was elected from Darjeeling) and 75-year-old Yashwant Sinha (who won from Hazaribagh) are not exactly darlings of the RSS. Having served as ministers of finance and external affairs, they felt they, as senior leaders, could not be denied their due. Jaswant Singh and Sinha criticised the party for the 2009 debacle. Singh was expelled the same year for writing a book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, that blamed Jawaharlal Nehru and Congress leaders including BJP icon Sardar Patel, for the Partition. Clearly, Singh had not learnt any lessons from Advani being forced to quit as BJP chief by the RSS in 2005 after he made the mistake of praising Jinnah and calling him a secular leader during a visit to his mausoleum in Karachi. Nevertheless, disregarding the RSS, Gadkari brought Jaswant Singh back into the party in 2010 to please Advani.

Sinha had quit as BJP vice president after the 2009 polls, flaying Advani and Rajnath Singh who was then party chief, with a "letter bomb". That he was involved in organising the chief ministers' conference in July this year and formulating the BJP's stand on economic issues was seen as a rehabilitation.

Sinha, however, has never forgiven Gadkari for ignoring his claim and making Arjun Munda chief minister of Jharkhand - when Advani had backed his candidature despite the lack of support of tribal MLAs. Similarly, many BJP leaders who were upset with Gadkari and the RSS because they were not given positions or Rajya Sabha seats, bided their time waiting for the right moment to strike back.

Gadkari's 'social work' returns to haunt him

Soon after BJP's national council meet at Surajkund at the end of September, during which the party constitution was amended to allow Gadkari to enjoy a second term, he found himself in hot water as the finances of his family-held Purti Power and Sugar group surfaced. The RSS came to his rescue by buying his arguments that no fraud of public money was involved. Sangh ideologue and chartered accountant, S Gurumurthy, asserted that no money laundering was involved. On October 24, Advani even issued a statement (perhaps persuaded by Gurumurthy) that the BJP chief was the victim of a conspiracy, a UPA strategy, to "paint the entire political class with the same brush to minimise and escape its unpardonable sins".

Advani also said the allegations were about "standards of business and not misuse of power or corruption" and that Gadkari was ready for a probe.

But, as media reports about Gadkari's firm and his family's alleged shell holdings persisted, Ram Jethmalani, who is close to Advani, publicly demanded that Gadkari quit to clear his name. He was soon backed by his son, Mahesh Jethmalani, and later by Yashwant Sinha who told the media: "Whether our party president is guilty or not is not the issue today. The issue is that all of us in public life should be beyond reproach." The rebel outburst put the RSS and Gadkari on the back foot once more. Advani refused to come out in support of Gadkari unless he first quit, or at least declared that he was not seeking a second term. A furious RSS refused to respond with a categorical answer, let alone an assurance. This, even as those close to Advani maintained that he was to head an interim arrangement till a successor was found. The RSS got Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh to hold a meeting on November 7 to accept Gurumurthy's findings and back Gadkari. Advani stayed away.

On November 27, Jethmalani, however, enlarged his battle against Gadkari by attacking Swaraj and Jaitley by questioning their attack on the government over the appointment of a new CBI director, Ranjit Sinha. Jethmalani attributed personal motives to Jaitely who, along with Swaraj, wrote to the PM questioning the timing of Sinha's appointment when the government was supposed to reach a consensus to pass the Lokpal Bill. As a result, the BJP had to suspend him. Jethmalani's rebellion is not new. He has quit the party on three occasions previously and even contested against Vajpayee in 2004. "So his rebellion won't decide anything," a party leader said. However, BJP leaders admit the Gadkari episode has dampened the party's spirits when it wanted to corner the government on various issues, including alleged scams, in the winter session of Parliament. Many wonder how long the BJP can remain defensive because of Gadkari. Will Gadkari just be allowed to complete his term which ends by early February? Key BJP leaders are confident that Gadkari will have to step down. However, RSS leaders insist that Gadkari will not be dumped in the way the party's first dalit chief, Bangaru Laxman was. Laxman resigned in 2001 after a sting showed him accepting money to facilitate a defence deal under the NDA rule.

What next?

While Gadkari loyalists and his RSS backers hold that his case cannot be compared to Laxman's, it is clear that Gadkari cannot be allowed to become a liability for the BJP. So who will succeed Gadkari? All eyes within the BJP are now on Modi. BJP insiders say they are sure of an "enhanced role" for Modi soon after he wins a third term for the party. Will Modi take charge of the party's campaign for the next Lok Sabha polls? Or will he remain one of the faces used only to enthuse the cadres? Insiders also say that along with Modi as head of the campaign panel, Jaitely and Sushma Swaraj could form a "formidable" pair to appeal to the middle class if their personal chemistry is improved. In a new twist to the internal tussle, Sushma Swaraj for the first time has endorsed Modi as a possible PM candidate. Support from Swaraj, the head of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, is significant because she is herself seen as a frontrunner for the mantle and has in the past only given lukewarm support to Modi. Even as Modi is made first among equals, the RSS may like the BJP to showcase all its leaders, along with Advani, MM Joshi, Rajnath Singh and BJP chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan (MP), Raman Singh (Chattishgarh), and Mohan Parrikar (Goa). The Sangh may eventually agree that all options be kept open to keep the BJP and the NDA united till the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP must win enough seats to be in the reckoning in the first place. Looking at recent events, however, that seems a really tall order.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.