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Who is in, who is out

Print edition : Sep 16, 2000 T+T-

The list of new BJP office-bearers announced by Bangaru Laxman indicates A.B. Vajpayee's tightening hold on the party's organisational apparatus.

PERHAPS never before in the history of the Bharatiya Janata Party has a list of office-bearers and National Executive members chosen by a new president of the party been awaited with such keen interest. This was partly because the "unanimous" election of Bangaru Laxman as party president in August had been marked by a high level of pulls and pressures within the top leadership. Laxman's choice, attributed widely to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's growing clout in the party, therefore logically led to intense speculation over the composition of his new committee. The speculation centred on whether Laxman, by managing to pack his camp followers to the extent of 25 per cent of the new members in the National Executive - which includes 21 office-bear ers under a constitutional provision - would change the party's power structure.

Laxman's list, released on September 11, indeed had many surprises. Chief among them was the failure of party secretary and former Union Minister Muqtar Abbas Naqvi to make it as a general secretary. Naqvi's inclusion as one of the five new general secre taries was widely expected, Laxman having been stressing the need to woo Muslims to join the party.

Naqvi, who joined the BJP in 1984, had been all-India vice-president of its youth wing for two terms. He has been a member of the National Executive for three terms, under both L.K. Advani and Kushabhau Thakre. He was the first Muslim to be elected on th e BJP ticket to the Lok Sabha in 1998 from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. However, he lost the 1999 elections. In the previous Vajpayee government, Naqvi was Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting and Parliamentary Affairs.

Laxman was pretty close to elevating Naqvi as one of the general secretaries when Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, who had already voiced his displeasure over Laxman's courtship of Muslims, gave a clear warning that should Naqvi be made a general secretar y, he would review his party's ties with the BJP. The warning had the intended effect, even though Naqvi, who has been retained as one of the seven secretaries, himself would not link these two events. Concealing his disappointment, he said on September 11: "I am happy with whatever responsibility the party has entrusted me with."

In the BJP's scheme of distribution of responsibilities among the office-bearers, the five posts of general secretaries are immensely important. Essentially in charge of the affairs of the party in various States, these general secretaries enjoy enormous powers with regard to the organisation and implementation of the party's programmes and decisions. The secretaries, on the other hand, merely discharge the functions allocated to them by the president, and help the general secretaries in their tasks.

Three of the general secretaries, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Narendra Modi and Maya Singh, and two of the vice-presidents Madan Lal Khurana and Gopinath Munde.

Laxman retained only two of Thakre's five general secretaries: M. Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Modi. Venkaiah Naidu's inclusion in Vajpayee's Ministry was considered a probability, as Vajpayee was under compulsion to fill three vacancies. These vacancies were created by the death of Power Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, and the resignation of two Ministers of State, Bangaru Laxman and Uma Bharati. While Laxman quit following his election as BJP president in line with the one-man-one-post principle, U ma Bharati quit the Ministry expressing a wish to be involved in agitational politics in Madhya Pradesh against the Congress(I) government led by Digvijay Singh. Uma Bharati submitted her resignation from the Lok Sabha to the Prime Minister, and quit the National Executive too. Although she denied that she was doing so in protest against Vajpayee's reluctance to include her in his Ministry again, Laxman decided to keep her out of his team and the National Executive, ostensibly in deference to her wishes .

Venkaiah Naidu was known to be uncomfortable with Laxman taking over as party president. Both hail from Andhra Pradesh, where they did not have a good equation. Venkaiah Naidu was in fact an aspirant for the post of party president, backed by Advani. Ass uming that a posture of self-denial would promote his chances, Venkaiah Naidu told the party's senior leaders that he was not interested in the post of party president. This, however, helped Vajpayee, who was keen on keeping all erstwhile Advani loyalist s out of the power structure.

Thus outmanoeuvred, Venkaiah Naidu was apparently offered the consolation prize of a Union Minister's post by Vajpayee. Vajpayee had earlier shown considerable interest in making Venkaiah Naidu a Union Minister, by asking him to delay his departure to th e United States by a few days so as to make himself available for consultations when he inducted new Ministers. However, Vajpayee did not go ahead with the induction of new Ministers immediately. Meanwhile, Venkaiah Naidu, unsure whether he would get a C abinet post or the position of a Minister of State, politely declined the offer, indicating that given a choice he would prefer to work for the party. With Laxman's decision to retain him as a general secretary, Venkaiah Naidu has no option but to work u nder Laxman.

That Sushma Swaraj would not be made a general secretary was a foregone conclusion after she had spoken out at the National Council meeting held in Nagpur against the government on the handling of the Kashmir issue. She was obliquely critical of both Vaj payee and Advani for their mode of handling of the Kashmir situation, which she alleged had led to the Amarnath tragedy. Though expression of dissent is not unusual in party forums, Vajpayee and Advani did not take kindly to Sushma Swaraj's outburst.

While Advani, in his speech in Nagpur, chided Sushma Swaraj, without naming her, for crossing the "Lakshman rekha", the Vajpayee camp was behind press reports that she was unlikely to make it to the Union Cabinet because of her "indiscretion" in Nagpur. Ahead of Nagpur, it appears, Vajpayee had almost decided to include her in his Cabinet. Advani, sensing Vajpayee's unease over Sushma Swaraj's remarks, probably wanted to distance himself from her, as she is known to be his protege. Had Advani not done t hat, it could have driven a wedge between him and Vajpayee.

In the context of the adverse publicity about her following the Nagpur speech, she prudently declined, citing personal reasons, the offer of a party post by Laxman, who was keen on making her a party spokesperson. Laxman, however, retained her as a membe r of the National Executive. Had Laxman not offered a post to her, it would have led to the conclusion that Vajpayee wanted to keep her out of the party's power structure as well, and Laxman probably wanted to avoid this impression.

K.N. Govindacharya, who has ceased to be general secretary; Muktar Abbas Naqvi, whose appointment as general secretary failed to materialise; Sushma Swaraj, whose exclusion from the National Executive was a foregone conclusion.

Another Advani loyalist who invited Vajpayee's wrath was K.N. Govindacharya, general secretary. He played a key role in the drafting of the party's economic resolution in Nagpur, and has been identified as being a part of the party's think-tank. Therefor e, his exit from Laxman's team was a clear indication that the Vajpayee-Advani cold war was in full flow. Govindacharya had once termed Vajpayee the most acceptable "face" of the party. Govindacharya's remark was translated in Hindi as "mukhota" ( meaning mask) in an article carried by Panchjanya, a weekly run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Govindacharya denied having used that expression to describe Vajpayee, and it appeared for a while that Vajpayee was convinced of Govindacharya's e xplanation. In any case, Vajpayee had no option but to let Govindacharya continue as party general secretary, in view of Advani's firm grip over the party affairs at that point.

However, with the election of Laxman as party president, Vajpayee probably thought it was now his turn to strike. Besides, Human Resource Development Minister, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who was not exactly happy with Govindacharya's thesis of social engin eering to make the party more acceptable to the non-privileged sections of society, backed the move to get rid of Govindacharya as a general secretary. And his removal from Laxman's team became inevitable after he presided over a National Executive meeti ng of the RSS-backed Swadeshi Jagran Manch in Agra in July 2000. This meeting gave a call for "a second freedom struggle," against the Vajpayee government's economic policies. It adopted a three-point action plan to make the people aware of the policies which, according to the Manch, are not only anti-people but also against the nation's interests. "Despite repeated warnings, the government is going ahead with its policies, which are certain to bring the country's rural economy to the brink of bankruptc y," one of the resolutions passed at the meeting said.

Govindacharya pleaded ignorance about the purpose of the meeting, but this was hardly convincing. In his defence, Govindacharya claimed that he had been requesting party president Kushabhau Thakre since March this year to relieve him from the post of gen eral secretary, so as to enable him to devote more time to study the economic problems facing the country. He argued that India could show a third way, which was distinct from the two rival economic models, as represented by statism and market forces.

As he was the best suited to identify the third way, Govindacharya wanted two years' study leave to pursue research into this question at the SJM-funded Centre for Policy Studies in Chennai. He said that he had followed up his request with Laxman, who ha d accepted it. It appears that Laxman offered the post of vice-president to Govindacharya, who, however, declined it. The BJP has seven vice-presidents, and they generally assist the president in the discharge of his duties. Considered an ornamental post , it generally went to senior leaders of the party. It is significant that Govindacharya went to Nagpur to consult the RSS sarsangchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, and had a long meeting with Advani, his mentor, before announcing his decision to keep out of Laxman's team.

Govindacharya denied that he was one of the newly sulking leaders in the party, and hoped that the period of his two-year leave would help the party ultimately. He, however, continues to be a member of the National Executive.

Ironically, while Govindacharya has had to give up the post of general secretary for having promoted the swadeshi philosophy, another general secretary, Sangh Priya Gautam, has been elevated to the post of vice-president despite having dubbed the economic reforms as "bakwas" (idle talk) during a debate in the Rajya Sabha.

Madan Lal Khurana was removed as vice-president by Kushabhau Thakre following his open criticism of the government's economic policies. Fearing that Khurana might embarrass the government during the Budget session of Parliament, Vajpayee bought his peace with him but could neither include him in his Ministry nor undo his removal as vice-president by Thakre. Khurana's come-back as vice-president in Laxman's team shows that Vajpayee has rewarded his one-time loyalist, even though Laxman is of the view tha t all dissidents should face disciplinary action without delay. Khurana had earned the RSS' wrath by publicly protesting against the attacks on Christians by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists, even risking his ministerial post under Vajpaye e during his earlier term. Khurana's rival in Delhi's regional politics, Sahib Singh Verma, has been made general secretary by Laxman, probably to keep the party's two major factions in Delhi in good humour.

Another sign of Vajpayee's increasing control over the party apparatus is the addition of Sunil Shastri, son of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, as a general secretary. Shastri joined the BJP on the eve of the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, and he i s considered a Vajpayee loyalist. The inclusion of former Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde as a vice-president is significant in the context of Vajpayee's compulsions to keep the Shiv Sena happy.

Of the 19 office-bearers chosen by Laxman (there are two vacancies in the list of secretaries), six are Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe persons, and women, as required by the party constitution. The lone woman office-bearer is Maya Singh, who has bec ome a general secretary. The question now is, will Laxman's new team help Vajpayee to consolidate his hold over the party?