A rough ride ahead

Print edition : January 27, 2006

The fissures within the BJP come to the fore at its 25th anniversary celebrations. It will be an uphill task for the new president, Rajnath Singh, to keep the various factions together.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Mumbai

Rajnath Singh with his predecessor L.K. Advani in Mumbai on December 31, where the latter announced his resignation as party president.-PUNIT PARANJPE/REUTERS

ONE point repeatedly highlighted by Lal Krishna Advani during the silver jubilee conference of the Bharatiya Janata Party, held in Mumbai in the last week of December, was a comparison between the 25 years of the party's existence and its experience in the previous 25 weeks. The outgoing party president maintained that the BJP's 25-year track record was indeed so glorious that it filled every party worker and supporter with pride. But, he added, the experience of the last 25 weeks - marked by electoral reverses, inner-party feuds and corruption scandals - was undoubtedly difficult. In a manner befitting a top leader, Advani also stated that this was only a bad patch which would pass soon, and hoped that the 25th anniversary celebrations would herald a change for the better.

Advani's pronouncement, which suggested introspection and at the same time sought to present an optimistic picture of the future, was, of course, similar to exercises that leaders of any political organisation undertake while passing milestones in their party's history. Almost all political organisations make use of anniversary celebrations to provide a new thrust to a particular political campaign or ideological position. Such events are also used to correct organisational deficiencies and reorient the party structure in order to give a fillip to organisational activities.

Despite Advani's reflective dissertations, the balance sheet of the five-day silver jubilee celebrations was one that did not advance the customary practices of political organisations effectively. On the contrary, the most striking feature of the conclave, as well as of the events leading to it and the ones that followed, was the perpetuation of the very same "bad" trends referred to by Advani. The continuation of the trend was such that the 25th anniversary celebrations practically turned into a celebration of sordid realpolitik games played out between various personalities in the party leadership.

In fact, these games descended to new levels of baseness during the Mumbai meet with the circulation of a CD showing party office-bearer Sanjay Joshi in a compromising situation, Joshi has been deputed specially to the BJP by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the leader of the Sangh Parivar. The circulation of the CD and the resultant debate compelled Joshi to resign as general secretary (organisation) in the midst of the conference and depart to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

Even as many commiserated with Joshi for his untimely exit from the party position, there were many others who could not conceal their glee. During his stint in the BJP, Joshi was known to have rubbed the wrong way former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati, who was expelled recently from the BJP, as well as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. While there was no confirmation as to who had actually engineered the production and distribution of the sex CD, there was little doubt within the BJP and outside that sections within the party carried it out.

The power play between various groups and individual leaders of the BJP during the Mumbai meet was not confined to the Sanjay Joshi episode. It had several other manifestations. And more importantly, it was not only the second-generation BJP leaders who, as has been their wont over the past two years, indulged in this power play. The "unquestioned" Big Two of the party - former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani - were also active participants in it. Even the most important organisational initiative undertaken in the context of the Mumbai meet - the bowing out of Advani from the president's post and the elevation of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh to the position - was weighed down by these playoffs.

Rajnath Singh's elevation was considered to be in keeping with the diktat repeatedly given to the BJP by the RSS over the past eight months. The RSS command, first conveyed by Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan, was that elderly senior leaders such as Vajpayee and Advani should make way for younger and more effective leaders who were not oriented merely towards power politics but are committed to the Sangh Parivar ideology of Hindutva. Advani had tried to resist the diktat for a considerable period, but ultimately gave up at the BJP's National Executive meet held in Chennai in mid-September.

Yet, the manner in which the RSS command was eventually carried out in the BJP was far from smooth. From the disinclination of the outgoing president and other office-bearers to announce formally Rajnath Singh's ascent throughout the Mumbai conference to the unequivocal sidelining of the future president in the functions relating to the silver jubilee and the projection of other second-generation leaders such as Pramod Mahajan as more important than Rajnath Singh, all highlighted the problems in the top echelons of the BJP. Even the Sanjay Joshi episode has been perceived by a section of the Sangh Parivar observers as an attempt to tell the RSS top brass that they have no right to take a high moral ground.

The decision to appoint Rajnath Singh was taken nearly three weeks before the Mumbai meet. There were a series of negotiations between leaders of the BJP and the RSS prior to that and, by all indications, RSS leader Mohan Bhagawat and Vajpayee played crucial roles in making the decision. Advani was apparently keen on bringing back his confidant M. Venkaiah Naidu as president for the remaining part of the current presidential term - which ends next year - while former Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi was pushing his own case.

Significant sections of the RSS did favour Joshi, but the negotiations between the RSS and the BJP highlighted the point that the former Union Minister would not be acceptable to the second-generation leadership of the BJP as a whole, particularly because of his "overbearing style of functioning".

Another candidate who found favour with vast sections of the RSS was the low-key BJP vice-president Bal Apte. But his candidature was also pushed back on the basis of the reasoning that Apte is virtually unknown beyond party circles and hence may find it difficult to adapt to the challenges of popular politics, especially that of coalition politics.

It was in such a context that Rajnath Singh, who has a modicum of popularity in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of North India, particularly in the upper caste Thakur community, and a reasonable track record as Chief Minister and Union Surface Transport Minister, moved up in the race. Rajnath Singh's weaknesses, such as his virtual anonymity in large parts of the country and the absence of any pressure group supporting him within the party, helped lessen opposition to him from other second-generation leaders.

The happenings in the BJP after the choice of Rajnath Singh highlighted one fact - that the Big Two and the second-generation leaders are keen to drive home his "inconsequential status" to him before handing over the organisational reins. The decision not to announce Rajnath Singh's promotion during the Mumbai meet was in keeping with this understanding. More importantly, the prospective party president was not asked to carry out any important task at the silver jubilee meet. He was not given the opportunity to move or second any of the major resolutions.

At the same time, his inner-party opponent in Uttar Pradesh, former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, was assigned the responsibility of seconding the political resolution and Venkaiah Naidu was given the prestigious task of delivering the silver jubilee message. Interestingly, Kalyan Singh's speech at the session was widely perceived to have contained oblique, critical references to Rajnath Singh. Kalyan Singh's reference to the "mistake of the party in promoting criminals in politics, especially during elections", was read by many as a criticism of Rajnath Singh, who had used the help of some musclemen to bolster the BJP and its government during his chief ministership.

However, Kalyan Singh's manoeuvre was rated as child's play by many Sangh Parivar insiders against the role played by the master tactician Vajpayee. He used the silver jubilee rally - the biggest gathering of BJP leaders and workers during the conference - to announce his decision to retire from electoral politics and said that the party would be guided in the future by a new Ram-Lakshman combination of Advani and Pramod Mahajan, the chief organiser of the Mumbai meet.

The message was clear and loud: Rajnath Singh may become the party president, but Mahajan was more equal than others in the second-generation leadership.

For long, Vajpayee and Advani were portrayed as the Ram and Lakshman of the BJP. By anointing Advani as Ram and Mahajan as Lakshman, the former Prime Minister made clear his preferences for positions of power in electoral politics.

But there was more to come. Venkaiah Naidu responded to Vajpayee's statement by saying that there were many Lakshmans in the party and that he himself was the Hanuman. Advani also joined in - a day after the conclusion of the meet and at the press conference specially convened to announce his resignation as BJP president - by trivialising Vajpayee's comment as something motivated merely by the physical proximity to Vajpayee that Advani and Mahajan had on the stage at the public rally. "I was sitting on one side [of Vajpayee] and Pramod on the other," he said. "I don't think anything more should be read into it."

Advani virtually cautioned Rajnath Singh not to overstep his brief as a mid-term president by asserting that he would continue to be the Leader of Opposition in Parliament and would be the BJP's "face" in the general elections in 2009. At the press conference called to announce his resignation, Advani denied that he had ever said he would step aside for a younger leadership in the next parliamentary polls. He also expressed confidence that he would remain an "important face" of the party for a long time to come and pointed out that the party had attached importance to his face even when he did not occupy positions like that of the Leader of Opposition. The assertion was also a kind of warning to Murli Manohar Joshi, who had tried to organise a campaign during the Mumbai meet against Advani's continuance as Leader of the Opposition.

On his part, the initial moves and pronouncements from Rajnath Singh after taking over as the new president have been low-key and seemingly in accordance with the parameters set by the RSS and the Big Two. He has sworn by the ideology of cultural nationalism - the BJP's euphemism for Hindutva - and has set four priorities for himself which include "keeping the party's image unblemished, expanding its base, working for the consolidation of the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] led by the BJP, and struggling against the anti-people policies of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government". He has also asserted that he would always be guided by seniors like Vajpayee and Advani as well as by RSS ideologues.

But even an average Sangh Parivar activist understands that the real import of all these pronouncements is not as good as it sounds. The experience of the past 10 years - the period when the BJP enjoyed long stints in power at the Centre and in the States - has shown that the promotion of the parliamentary interests of the NDA may work against the idea of keeping the party's image unblemished and that the perspectives of the RSS and the BJP leaderships would clash repeatedly in such circumstances.

The deliberately confusing signals given by the Big Two vis-a-vis primacy in the second-generation leadership is a factor that would impede Rajnath Singh's smooth progress. He will have to make special efforts to counter Mahajan, virtually anointed the primary figure in parliamentary politics after the Big Two by none other than Vajpayee. The fact that the party has not been able to come up with any ground-breaking campaign in the context of the silver jubilee celebrations is also bound to encumber Rajnath Singh's plans to lift the party out of the self-evaluated political-organisational muddle. The political and economic resolutions passed at the meet have also not given him any new direction, because they were, in essence, repetitions of the declarations made by the party and its leadership throughout the past year.

But the biggest challenge for Rajnath Singh would be balancing the pressures of the RSS on the one side and the compulsions of advancing NDA politics on the other. The victory in the Bihar Assembly elections has indeed given a fillip to the NDA concept but it has in no way helped minimise factional clashes within the BJP. On the contrary, as the Mumbai meet itself has shown, the internal conflicts have aggravated.

This bleak state of affairs in the BJP may hold alarming prospects. With a `Hindutva soldier' like Rajnath Singh technically at the helm of affairs, the RSS may succeed in making him pursue an aggressive Hindutva campaign that would polarise society on communal lines.

The Nyay Yatra campaign that Rajnath Singh undertook in Uttar Pradesh in the days preceding the Mumbai meet had, in a limited way, generated communal polarisation in parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The big question, certainly, in this context is whether Rajnath Singh can display the maturity to balance the conflicting pulls of the RSS and the NDA.

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