Alone at the top

Print edition : July 16, 2004

Vajpayee at the swearing-in ceremony of the Congress-led coalition Ministry at the Centre on May 22. - DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS

Vajpayee's statements on the continuance of Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister and about himself being under attack for the first time have not met with any sympathetic response from senior BJP leaders. His isolation within the party appears to be complete.

FORMER Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee might not have realised that being candid about his role in the Bharatiya Janata Party and in the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre would result in the diminution of his own stature within the party. Even as he used his holiday in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, on June 13 to throw fresh light on the outcome of the elections, the BJP's central leadership in New Delhi was simply not ready to wash dirty linen in public within a month of the party's electoral debacle. It sought to neutralise Vajpayee's musings by coming to the defence of the person who was the object of his attack - Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Indeed, Vajpayee's might well have been a sincere reflection on the 2002 Gujarat riots. He claimed that although he wanted to remove Modi after the riots he was confronted with two views within the party. Ultimately, he believed that opting for Assembly elections in Gujarat under Modi's leadership would be the right step. However, looking back, he felt it was not correct. He alleged that the riots came in handy for the BJP's adversaries to attack the party in their campaign, for example by distributing films on the riots. He hinted that it could have affected the party's image. The question of a change of leadership in Gujarat was open and the BJP National Executive in Mumbai could discuss it afresh, he suggested.

The timing of Vajpayee's revelations, however, confounded his critics and admirers in the party. Informed sources in the BJP confided that top leaders had agreed, even before Vajpayee left for Manali, that Modi should soon be removed from the post of Chief Minister in view of the growing indiscipline in the party. Nearly 80 per cent of the BJP's MLAs in Gujarat wanted his removal, the main reason being his autocratic style of functioning. Yet, the party deferred any action against Modi in view of the Lok Sabha elections. Removing Modi soon after the Lok Sabha elections would, again, have strengthened the argument of Modi-baiters in the BJP and the NDA that it was his handling of the riots and its aftermath that cost the coalition dearly in Gujarat and outside.

The Sangh Parivar used the same logic to stymie Vajpayee's effort to reopen the issue in Mumbai. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) intervened to tell the BJP that it had no objection to Modi being replaced but that it could not accept the argument that his handling of the riots led to the debacle in the elections. The pressure from the RSS, exerted directly by its general secretary (sarsanghchalak) K.S. Sudarshan, forced the BJP to repudiate Vajpayee publicly. BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu spoke to Vajpayee who was in Manali three times over telephone on June 14, and secured his consent for a statement `clarifying' his views. Venkaiah Naidu denied that the Mumbai National Executive would have Modi on its agenda, but hinted that the issue could be discussed on its sidelines. The decision was seen as a snub to Vajpayee.

The issue, however, refused to die down. At a public meeting in Manali, Vajpayee appealed to the party not to run away from a debate on the outcome of the elections, forcing the BJP to search for a suitable forum to accommodate his demand. The party announced the meeting of the party's Parliamentary Board - consisting of 10 senior leaders - on June 20 to discuss the poll debacle. It was felt that the National Executive, which has 78 members, 21 special invitees, and several permanent invitees, cannot meaningfully discuss a subject like the electoral outcome in three days because of its complexity. Therefore, presidents of the party's State units would present reports on their respective States, followed by a discussion, as per the party's tradition, the spokesperson said. As Vajpayee also referred to a possible discussion on the change of leadership in Gujarat, the Parliamentary Board was considered the right forum to clinch the issue.

At the Board meeting held at Venkaiah Naidu's residence in New Delhi, however, Vajpayee was further isolated. The party again `secured' his consent to announce that there would be no change of leadership in Gujarat "at this juncture". Unofficially, however, it was revealed that Modi would be replaced at a later date, possibly after the Maharashtra Assembly elections in September. The deadline for Modi's ouster was thrust by the RSS, whose representative, joint secretary Madan Das Devi, was available at the meeting for consultations. However, it appears, the suggestion to await the outcome of the Maharashtra elections to replace Modi did not come up at the meeting; it was most probably added as an after-thought to give a fresh lease of life to Modi. Fixing any deadline for Modi's ouster would have signalled a triumph for Vajpayee.

At the concluding day of the Mumbai meet, Venkaiah Naidu declared that Modi would not be removed from power even after three weeks. He sought to dispel reports that the party intended to remove him within a week. But the message he sought to send to the Vajpayee camp in the party was unambiguous: Modi was going to stay. The dominant view within the party was that Modi was not an issue in the Lok Sabha elections either in Gujarat or elsewhere, and therefore the timing of Vajpayee's outburst was misplaced.

Indeed, Vajpayee's outburst in Manali seems to have caused a drawing of battle lines within the BJP. In Mumbai, Vajpayee was silent on the issue; he even met Modi to discuss the leadership issue, which was brought up by his rival and former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. Had Vajpayee not spoken out earlier, the rebellion in the party would have forced Modi out of office.

Vajpayee's candour came as a blessing in disguise for Modi as the entire Sangh Parivar and even his critics came to the defence of Modi. Vajpayee's critics questioned his motives in raising the Modi issue now. "Vajpayee is looking ahead, and probably believes that he would be the obvious legitimate candidate for the post of Prime Minister if the present government at the Centre falls owing to internal contradictions. He thinks that Modi's removal from power would boost his secular image. The rest of the party does not think so," said Prafull Goradia, a National Executive member and a former member of the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat.

Goradia wrote to Vajpayee saying that his remarks in Manali had hurt him and Gujaratis as a whole. Disagreeing with his analysis that the BJP suffered losses because of the Gujarat riots and Modi, Goradia questioned Vajpayee's commitment to the Sangh Parivar. He urged him to retract his remarks or express regret. "Don't precipitate a split in the Hindutva movement," he warned. Goradia's outburst was followed by another, by Rajya Sabha member and former Minister, Sangh Priya Gautam, who at the Mumbai meeting appealed to Advani to take up the party leadership.

Vajpayee's embarrassment became acute after he addressed a rally of party workers in Mumbai on June 23 to mark the death anniversary of the party's founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Releasing a book on himself, Atalji: The Pathfinder, edited by an admirer, Ramesh Patange, Editor of the Marathi weekly Vivek, Vajpayee expressed hope that the book would come to his help at a time when he was "for the first time under attack". In response to the slogan "Agli bari Atal Bihari (Next time it is Vajpayee) raised by party workers, he said in Marathi: "No next time, enough is enough."

Vajpayee's off-the-cuff remark created a flutter within the party. But senior leaders were in no mood to display their loyalty to him publicly, as they would have otherwise done, if he had been in power. Sensing the mood, Vajpayee retracted the following day and clarified that his remarks about not seeking another term in office were made in a lighter vein and that he would work more vigorously than before for the party's success in the Mahrashtra Assembly elections. But there was no denial either from him or from the party on his remark that he was under attack. Observers note that he could not have referred to the invectives flung at him frequently by leaders of the VHP, who promptly urged his retirement. Nor could he be referring to the attacks from his adversaries in other parties as they were obviously not made for the first time. Clearly, he was alluding to the overt and covert attacks against him from within the BJP; senior leaders of the party did nothing to assuage his hurt.

The isolation of Vajpayee within the BJP appears to be complete.

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