Leader by chance

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Rajnath Singh, after being nominated for the post of BJP president, at the party headquarters in New Delhi on January 23. Photo: Vijay Kumar Joshi /PTI

L.K. Advani with Nitin Gadkari (left) in New Delhi on January 23. Photo: Vijay Kumar Joshi /PTI

BJP leaders Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh at a rally in Lucknow on January January 21. Photo: Subir Roy

The BJP needs a big makeover to present an effective challenge to the Congress. Is Rajnath Singh, the new party president, equal to the task?

FACING A CREDIBILITY CRISIS, DEMOTIVATED CADRE and intense faction feuds, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has some hard work to do if it must resurrect its image to present an effective challenge to the Congress. No wonder, its new president, Rajnath Singh, perceives his anointment more as a responsibility than anything else. He has the daunting task of pulling out the party from its moribund state, transforming it into a fighting machine, and reining in the vaulting ambitions of the likes of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The severe crisis facing the party in States such as Karnataka, Jharkhand and his home State of Uttar Pradesh makes the task even more onerous. Given the adversities stacked up against it, can the BJP emerge as an alternative to the directionless Congress? This is the real challenge facing the party.

Rajnath Singh was elected party president on January 23 in unusual circumstances. Outgoing president Nitin Gadkari, who had the full support of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which had even forced the BJP to change its constitution to give him a second term, was involved in a controversy after allegations of financial improprieties in collusion with the authorities in Maharashtra were made against him. On the day of filing of nominations, the Income Tax authorities raided Gadkari’s Purti group of companies and found serious financial irregularities. It even emerged that some of these companies did not exist.

The controversy had sought to weaken the BJP’s anti-corruption platform. It could not take the moral high ground when Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra was accused of fraudulent land deals. The BJP had remained a spectator in the political theatre. Besides, Gadkari had alienated the entire top brass of the party. Senior party leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and, more importantly, L.K. Advani vehemently opposed his renomination. Intense lobbying by Advani, who insisted that the BJP should be a “party with a difference and not a party of differences” worked, and Rajnath Singh, though not a favourite of Advani (he rooted for either Sushma Swaraj or M. Venkaiah Naidu), emerged as the consensus candidate.

The task cut out for Rajnath Singh is to make the party a credible alternative to the Congress and prop up the almost defunct National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP as a viable alternative to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). However, it is easier said than done, especially since the clamour within the party for the nomination of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has overshadowed all else since Rajnath Singh took over. “There is no doubt that Modiji is a popular leader and has projected a successful model for development in Gujarat, but the BJP has a way of doing these things and in our party such decisions are taken by the Central Parliamentary Board [CPB] in consultation with all senior leaders. We will take a view on this when the Parliamentary Board meets,” Rajnath Singh told Frontline. He denied there was a race for the nomination.

“There is no race. It is all only in the media. By the end of February things will become clearer when the National Executive is held and the CPB is formed,” he said.

However, if party insiders are to be believed, Modi’s return to the CPB, which he had to leave after Rajnath Singh became party president for the first time in 2005, is almost certain. Also certain is the fact that he will play a crucial role in guiding the BJP’s campaign. He could even be made the head of the central campaign committee. “It cannot be denied that today Narendra Modi is the only BJP leader who enthuses the party cadre and we will cash in on this factor during the elections,” a senior BJP leader said. But, it is also becoming clear that the party will refrain from naming him as the prime ministerial candidate for two reasons: one, he may not have the full backing of the RSS and the BJP itself, and two, the BJP’s partners in the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena, have already made it known that they may not accept him. “We have to take the views of our alliance partners into consideration, we cannot push our way, not if we will have to depend on them for reaching the majority figure,” the leader said.

In fact, the clamour for Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, senior BJP leaders admit, is meaningless right now because the BJP can put pressure on its allies only if it gets anywhere between 200 and 272 seats. “If we have to depend on our allies to form the government, then their views cannot be ignored. It will have to be somebody who has the backing of the RSS as well as the alliance partners in that case,” the leader said.

Other party leaders feel that the motive behind the premature clamour for nominating Modi could even be to thwart his candidature. It is a tried-and-tested trick in politics: discuss something ad nauseum until it loses its relevance. In fact, there could be some merit in this logic because those who are beating the drum for Modi (who include Yashwant Sinha, C.P. Thakur, Ram Jethmalani and Mahesh Jethmalani) are neither political heavyweights nor persons known to be close to him, with the exception of Ram Jethmalani. Senior BJP leaders are concerned that the Modi raga could actually become counterproductive for the party.

“There is a real danger that too much clamour for Modi could polarise voters along religious lines, and in that case the Congress will be the real gainer because Muslim votes will go in its favour. In such a situation, the BJP will lose out because Hindus don’t ever make a consolidated vote bank, no matter what,” a senior BJP leader said. In this context, it is significant that Rajnath Singh has advised partymen to exercise restraint on the issue until the CPB takes stock of the situation.

“I will go by consultation and consensus and take everyone along,” he said, refusing to commit himself on the issue. He was also non-committal when asked whether it was better for the party go in for the elections without projecting a prime ministerial face. “Face or no face, we have the NDA government’s performance to show—when inflation was at an all-time low, infrastructure development happened, and despite a lot of development work taking place, there were no corruption charges,” he said. When pointed out that it was during the NDA regime that the Gujarat riots (2002) happened, Rajnath Singh had no answer. He merely said, “riots can happen during any rule. Have they not happened during Congress regimes”? He said people forget the fact that it was the Congress that consciously promoted communal politics. “We have been ruling Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for many years now and there have been no riots there. Even Gujarat has been peaceful all these years. Look at what the Congress is doing. It is fanning communal hatred. How can one ignore what [Home Minister Sushilkumar] Shinde has said on Hindu terror? He is painting the entire Hindu community as terrorists. We will not let it pass. We will oppose it at all platforms, including inside Parliament. Shinde will have to apologise,” he said.

‘Clear road map’

The BJP’s road map, it appears now, is clear. Put the Congress on the mat for inflation, corruption, communalism, and alienation of the masses. “We will approach the people with a clear road map. We will come up with an agenda for development and employment generation. We will not approach people with only a negative campaign; the thrust of our campaign will be positive. We will have a map for systemic changes, like we are committed to bring in the institution of Lok Pal to rein in corruption,” he said.

It was Rajnath Singh who led the party when it was defeated in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. What could have changed in the past few years? “Anti-incumbency does take its toll. Over 15-20 per cent of our voters had strayed away from us after six years of our rule. Only if they come back, we will be able to form the government at the Centre once again,” a senior leader said. The urban voters, the middle class and the educated people had become restive and strayed away. They surfaced at Anna Hazare’s and later Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-corruption platforms. “They will come back to us this time because people vote for those parties or alliances which, in their opinion, are in a position to form the government. We have our past record and a positive agenda to convince our voters to back us,” the leader said. As for the urban, educated class getting disenchanted with the established political parties and looking for alternatives for better governance, whether through Anna Hazare or through Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP is not worried. “These were spontaneous outbursts in the heat of the moment against the establishment and have now petered out. They are not in a position yet to influence voting,” Rajnath Singh said.

The BJP’s organisational troubles, however, are a matter of concern for party leaders. With many State Assemblies going to the polls later this year and the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for next year, this is one aspect the party needs to focus on.

The BJP has just lost its government in Jharkhand; its government in Karnataka is tottering; in Rajasthan, powerful regional leaders such as Vasundhara Raje are sulking; in Uttarakhand, the BJP lost the last Assembly elections by one seat; in Uttar Pradesh, it remains on the sidelines, with no prospect of being any better; and in Bihar, party leaders are having regular verbal clashes with JD(U) Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

“Yes, our organisation needs to be revamped and strengthened. The cadre needs to be motivated and returned to the ideological moorings once again and the party’s credibility will have to be strengthened,” Rajnath Singh admitted.

Interestingly, while in all other States Rajnath Singh may be able to swish a magic wand to improve matters, he seems to be totally at a loss as far as Uttar Pradesh goes. He appears to be returning to the same old faces and formulae that have been unsuccessful in the past. For example, even before he became party president, he worked to bring back into the party fold Kalyan Singh, who was Chief Minister when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992.

Kalyan Singh fell out with the BJP in the late 1990s and floated his own party, which he has now merged with the BJP. But it is debatable whether Kalyan Singh continues to wield the same old clout in Uttar Pradesh. His brief dalliance with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had cost the S.P. leader dearly. Besides, Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh were known to be hostile to each other in the past and the sudden bonhomie could appear artificial and may not be of any use to the party. In fact, during his previous tenure as BJP chief, Rajnath Singh had proved to be a failure in Uttar Pradesh. An old rival of Rajnath Singh put it succinctly: “Rajnath Singh becoming the party chief in itself is a miracle. He is one lucky man, so we all are hoping for miracles to happen so that he does not have to preside over yet another defeat.” A telling commentary on the state of affairs in the party.

In fact, only if miracles happen can Rajnath Singh bring back the party from its nadir. He is working with the same set of people who had turned hostile during his last tenure and he has to deal with the same set of ambitious regional leaders. Maybe his propensity to remain detached and unruffled and stay above controversies and his larger acceptability among the rank and file will prove useful and actually make the BJP the lean and mean election fighting machine that it needs to become.

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