The euphoria that Narendra Modi’s elevation as election campaign chief created in the BJP suddenly turned into panic with senior leader L.K. Advani rising in revolt and the party’s long-time ally Janata Dal (United) leaving the NDA. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN
EVEN when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was making the final preparations for its Goa National Executive session, the chatter among some of the close associates of party president Rajnath Singh and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was on how the two leaders had earmarked June and July 2013 as the months to make the first concerted political and organisational thrusts aimed at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Modi’s elevation as the chairman of the BJP’s election campaign committee was of course the primary piece in the scheme of things, but the two leaders had apparently conceived a number of follow-up manoeuvres in terms of formulating election slogans and bracing up the State units and front organisations. However, nearly two weeks after the Goa meeting and the appointment of Modi to the top campaign position, the acolytes of the party president and the potential Prime Minister-designate are not sure whether things will go according to plan. In their own words, the impact of certain adverse realpolitik developments within the BJP, the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have been such that their well-laid-out plans have hit a roadblock of sorts. “Of course, all of us, including the leaders, had expected these developments. But we did not take into account two things. One, the blatant manner in which the opposition to Modi has come out and two, the timing of these developments. They have happened much earlier than expected. And there is no denying that this has generated doubts as to when and how the plans devised by the leaders will gather the momentum they will want,” said a close associate of Rajnath Singh to Frontline.
The adverse developments referred to by the Delhi-based senior BJP activist are the open revolt by veteran BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani and the departure of long-term NDA constituent Janata Dal (United), JD (U), from the alliance, underscoring the unacceptability of Modi’s leadership. The manner in which a section of the Sangh Parivar, belonging to the RSS and the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), has responded to these developments has also added to the complications faced by the party president. On both developments , the calculation of those close to Modi and Rajnath Singh was that they were bound to happen, but not so fast, denying them time and political space to handle them.
One of the factors highlighted by this section of the BJP in relation to the JD(U)’s departure was that informal surveys conducted by both the parties in Bihar recently had stressed that both would suffer electorally in the absence of an alliance. “We had information that the JD(U) survey too had predicted losses for the party if it went alone. Hence our calculation was that it would sustain the relationship at least until after the elections, and leave the alliance later if Modi was chosen Prime Minister. But Nitish Kumar upset that calculation by deciding to break away within a week of Modi’s elevation,” said the Rajnath Singh associate. Sources within the JD(U) too agreed that the surveys had shown electoral losses if the party fought alone. “But that is a calculated risk we are taking. There is no question of accepting Modi’s leadership,” said a senior JD(U) leader.
But the development with the most immediate consequences for the party organisation and the Sangh Parivar structure is certainly Advani’s revolt. Sections of the RSS have rated the veteran leader’s resignation the very next day after Modi’s elevation as a realpolitik master stroke. “Of course, he did withdraw the resignations [from all party posts] following their rejection by the parliamentary board and interventions by the RSS top brass, including Mohanrao Bhagwat, but the message that he wanted to send across has been conveyed loud and clear. More importantly, he has now presented himself as a rallying point for all anti-Modi forces within the party and the Sangh Parivar,” pointed out an RSS leader from Lucknow. He added that the immediate impact of Advani’s manoeuvre on the organisation was one that it turned the euphoria in Goa to the panic in Delhi. “Leaders who were jubilant and planning new organisational initiatives were forced to make frenzied movements. In making that strike, Advani made real good use of his long political experience,” the RSS leader told Frontline.
And there is little doubt that that experience will manifest itself in further attacks aimed at keeping up the pressure on Modi and Rajnath Singh. A clear indication of this was available in the form of an article written by Sudheendra Kulkarni, a close Advani associate. Significantly, the article appeared a day before Modi made a conciliatory visit to Advani on June 18. Kulkarni described Modi as an “autocrat”and the party president as “foxy”. He wrote: “An autocrat [Modi] is sought to be enthroned, and a perfect democrat [Advani] is being marginalised and humiliated.... A self-centred leader who has shown that he cares two hoots for the party organisation and long-time party colleagues in his own State has suddenly become all powerful in the BJP’s national scheme of things, whereas a selfless leader who toiled for many decades to build the party brick by brick is being cast aside as a useless relic.”
He added: “And a foxy party president, who has his own astrologically induced delusions of becoming India’s Prime Minister, has allowed himself to be prodded and dictated by vested interests to undermine Advani’s position in the BJP.” Kulkarni concluded by saying that the “decay that has begun in the BJP” will most “certainly accelerate if Advani is further humiliated and forced either to retire or to rebel”.
The effect of these manoeuvres is such that at the level of both the BJP and the RSS, the Sangh Parivar is compelled to keep up the discussion with Advani. Two days after Modi made the conciliatory visit, Bhagwat also had a discussion with Advani. The RSS then issued a press release, contrary to its convention. It stated that “it was opined that several issues need further discussion and exchange of notes at various levels” and that the “same will take place at appropriate time”. Various sections of the Sangh Parivar feel that all this would mean many small and not-so-small upheavals in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, leading to some concrete gains for Advani.
Many Sangh Parivar activists and observers point out that Advani had made such successful gambits earlier too. One saw such a move after the Mumbai national executive in May 2012 and later when Nitin Gadkari’s reappointment was being pushed by the RSS in January 2013. After the Mumbai session, he wrote in his blog that the party was far from “upbeat” and that the leadership had mishandled several political issues. Gadkari was the target of that attack and he persisted with it until January this year when the RSS finally gave up its case for the reappointment of Gadkari. “That is the kind of concrete result Advani would seek from the RSS. One should remember that in 2009 too Advani had manoeuvred in such a manner that the RSS was forced to retain him as the prime ministerial candidate despite the Jinnah controversy,” pointed out the Lucknow-based RSS leader.
At the level of larger politics, these happenings have highlighted two things. First, the divisive potential of Modi as a leader has been doubly underscored. It has been shown that Modi’s leadership creates manifest tensions not only in the larger polity and among allies but also within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Second, these have shaken off the very foundations of the old argument that the BJP is a party with a difference. In fact, the latter point was stressed by Advani himself in his resignation letter. He stated plainly that the BJP was no longer the “same idealistic party” built by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Nanaji Deshmukh and A.B. Vajpayee and that “most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas”. Interestingly, many political observers and even activists of the Sangh Parivar who tended to agree with Advani on the moral and organisational collapse of the BJP also felt that the veteran leader and his resignation letter too represented the overwhelming “concern with just personal agendas”.
It is this moral and organisational collapse that is most striking about the double blow that the saffron party has suffered this June.
While it is too early to say how things will unfold in the days to come, there is little doubt that the realpolitik strikes by Advani and Co. will traverse down the organisation. Other BJP leaders, such as Sushma Swaraj, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Uma Bharati, could come up with their own strategems at different junctures. Leaders like Sushma Swaraj could also bring in the NDA factor, just as Advani did, in their manoeuvres against Modi. Already, the Shiv Sena has expressed its preference for Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
A solution can emerge only when the party is able to check its moral and political collapse. For this, the infighting in the party has to stop. But there are no immediate signs of that happening. It is in this context that sections of the BJP are apprehensive whether the party will be able to get itself into a position to tap even half of Modi’s perceived mass appeal at election time.