Shadow-boxing over Bhandari

Print edition : February 27, 1999

ON the evening of February 18, Bharatiya Janata Party circles in the national capital were abuzz with reports that Union Home Minister L.K. Advani had been given a severe dressing down by H.V. Seshadri, senior leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the Hindutva combine. Seshadri reportedly castigated Advani for causing a controversy and for triggering a feud in the Sangh Parivar by hinting at the imminent replacement of Bihar Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari so soon after he had helped the Hindutva combine attain one of its major political objectives by preparing the ground for the dismissal of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Government in the State.

Meanwhile, Bhandari was closeted with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi. Bhandari had arrived that morning from Patna, with bag and baggage, with no intention of returning to Bihar as Governor. He had stated his intention to resign his gubernatorial post following Advani's statement of February 16. Advani had said that the Centre was thinking of "giving a non-partisan and apolitical administration in Bihar". Asked by newspersons if this meant that the Governor would be replaced, Advani said: "It has implications."

According to a close associate of Bhandari and an office-bearer of the Delhi unit of the BJP, at his meeting with Vajpayee, Bhandari wanted to know why he was criticised at a time when the Hindutva forces ought to be savouring victory following the dismissal of the RJD Government.

"What pained the Governor most," the Bhandari associate told Frontline, "was the 'role reversal' of the Home Minister." In Bhandari's perception, his report on the situation in Bihar, which prepared the ground for the dismissal, provided an input for the improvement of the law and order situation in the country as a whole, but the Home Minister denigrated him in a way an Opposition leader would. By suggesting that the Bhandari-led administration might be replaced with a "non-partisan and apolitical administration", Advani had virtually branded him a political operator. Bhandari reportedly asked Vajpayee whether the Central Government had "a built-in Opposition in the form of the Home Minister".

Commenting on these interactions as well as the sequence of events that started with Advani's statement, a senior BJP functionary who is close to the Prime Minister said that it signified three things: one, the feud between Vajpayee and Advani for supremacy in the Government had come out into the open; two, inner-party tussles had caused reverses to the BJP at a juncture when the party was in a position to make political gains; and three, through their actions, Seshadri, Bhandari and Vajpayee have 'reined in' Advani.

The BJP functionary added: "Neither Seshadri nor Bhandari credits Advani with such political naivete as to think that he did not know that his statement against the Governor would undermine the BJP's political gains. So, the real import of the interactions was to give this message about power play in government."

The BJP functionary further said: "As long as the RJD Government was there, Governor Bhandari was all right for Advani and was doing a commendable job. However, all that changed once the Government was removed."

The reason for this devaluation in Bhandari's "utility value" was not far to seek. President's Rule gave an opportunity for forces within the BJP as well as its principal ally in the State, the Samata Party, to control the administration. But Bhandari was not "pliant" enough and would never have done Advani's bidding.

Antipathy between Bhandari and Advani is believed to date back to their Jan Sangh days. Further when the Jain hawala scandal broke in 1996 and Advani was about to be charge-sheeted, Bhandari, who was one of the vice-presidents of the BJP, was the first to raise the question of the impropriety of Advani's continuance as party president. In recent times, Bhandari is believed to have moved closer to Vajpayee.

The more immediate cause for Advani's statement of February 16 was Bhandari's move to restructure the administrative set-up in Bihar. The Governor had prepared an initial list of 53 officers of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service for transfer to key positions. State-level leaders of the Samata Party felt that upper-caste officers were favoured in the reshuffle. They expressed their reservations to the BJP leadership.

According to BJP insiders, Advani saw in all this an opportunity to "soften" Vajpayee politically. The strategy of using an ally's expressed reservations to target the Prime Minister was evidently one that appealed to Advani: for in his perception, Vajpayee himself had used parties such as the Trinamul Congress to score points against the Sangh Parivar.

Some observers reckon that Advani perhaps did not expect Bhandari to react in the way he did and get as much support as he did from the RSS and from BJP MPs from Bihar. The Governor said that he was hurt by the Home Minister's statement and packed his bags and left for Delhi. On reaching Delhi by train, he pointedly refused to accept a government vehicle and opted for a private one.

Following these interactions and the meetings between Advani and Seshadri and between Vajpayee and Bhandari, the BJP top brass claimed that the controversy had blown over. The burying of the hatchet was preceded by a telephonic conversation between Advani and Bhandari on February 19 and a statement from the Home Minister expressing regret for the "misunderstanding" he had caused. Thereupon Bhandari withdrew his threat to resign.

DOES all this signal the end of the tug-of-war between Vajpayee and Advani? And will Bhandari have a free hand in running the administration in Bihar? BJP insiders are sceptical: they credit Advani with far too much tenacity to give in so tamely. Advani's supporters too say that although the Home Minister had to pay for his "impulsiveness", he is capable of doing it again. A party office-bearer, considered close to Advani, told Frontline: "In any case, through the controversy Advaniji has made the point that Bhandari or the Prime Minister cannot do as they please in running the Bihar administration. This is a limited gain even in the midst of the larger reverse."

The first round of the battle, it would appear, has gone to Vajpayee. However, the Sangh Parivar is towelling up and preparing for many more such combats.

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