Battles within

Print edition : October 22, 2004

The power struggle among the second line leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party intensifies.

in New Delhi

"DAMAGE control is the name of the game," a former Rajya Sabha member of the Bharatiya Janata Party said as he nonchalantly watched the proceedings at a special reception for former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati in New Delhi on September 27. The reception, organised by the Delhi unit of the BJP, was termed a "mass gathering" "to celebrate" the "successful completion" of her fortnight-long Hubli-to-Jallianwalabagh Tiranga Yatra.

BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati in New Delhi on September 27.-GURINDER OSAN/AP

But, as the former Member of Parliament observed, there was little celebration at the meeting. Instead, what dominated the speeches at the small, unenthusiastic gathering was the "unjustified media build-up on the internal struggle in the BJP". Speaker after speaker, including Uma Bharati, BJP national president M. Venkaiah Naidu and former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, took pains to explain that there were no personality or ideological tussles among the party leaders.

As if to emphasise the point, Uma Bharati showered praise on Venkaiah Naidu and the latter reciprocated. Advani saluted both as leaders committed to the larger interests of the country and the party. Uma Bharati and Venkaiah Naidu also exhibited their bonhomie by constantly chatting and exchanging smiles. Obviously, the two leaders wanted to show that they had put behind them the "telephone showdown" during the yatra.

Uma Bharati stretched the display of bonhomie further by asserting that she never accused Venkaiah Naidu of trying to sabotage her yatra. According to her, she only sought permission to take out a "small yatra" to Jallianwalabagh, but Venkaiah Naidu decided to convert it into a full-fledged campaign covering several States. She added: "Naiduji was the one who planned and organised the trajectory of the Yatra. He has been so nice to me. How can I ever accuse him of having tried to impair an initiative he himself planned?"

It was a well-orchestrated exercise, which sought to underplay and even cover up the unsavoury happenings within the BJP during the Tiranga Yatra and the national campaign that the party and its associates in the Sangh Parivar undertook in August and September. The events were designed to be part of an agitation and propaganda initiative against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. But by the time the yatra finished its fortnight-long journey on September 25, the nation's attention was not drawn to the "matters of grave national concern" that the party sought to highlight. Instead, the focus fell on the power struggle in the second line leadership of the BJP - involving stalwarts such as former Union Ministers Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, besides Uma Bharati and Venkaiah Naidu. The race was for the third slot in the party hierarchy after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.

Sushma Swaraj.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

THE internal strife manifested itself in several forms. At the beginning of the Tiranga Yatra Sushma Swaraj announced a satyagraha in Andaman and Nicobar Islands with the professed purpose of protesting against the "denigration" of the late Hindu Mahasabha leader V.D. Savarkar. The satyagraha was held on September 21, even as the yatra entered its last phase. Uma Bharati and her supporters saw it as an attempt to "steal the limelight" from her and lost no time in complaining to Vajpayee and Advani. When the yatra entered Maharashtra - where politically crucial Assembly elections were due in mid-October - the State unit of the BJP virtually cold-shouldered it by routing it through places of no political significance. The reasoning was that the issues highlighted by the yatra, nationalism and Hindutva, were of no consequence in the State. That the State BJP was practically under the control of Pramod Mahajan was not lost on Uma Bharati and her supporters.

Then came the not-so-pleasant telephonic conversation between Uma Bharati and Venkaiah Naidu, in the course of which she accused him of trying to sabotage the yatra by attempting to prevent Vajpayee from attending the concluding rally at Amritsar. Venkaiah Naidu responded to the charge by refusing to participate in the reception to the yatra in Bhopal. Uma Bharati threatened to quit politics after the yatra. However, she later gave a different interpretation saying that what she wanted was a two-year leave from party activities so that she could go on a long journey across the country and interact "more closely with the people".

The September 27 reception tried to nullify the negative effect of all these developments on the party's image. The principal target of the exercise was the party rank and file, highly demoralised by the internal strife. The meeting sought to reassure the cadre that they need not worry about the spat between the leaders and instead should focus on preparing the party for future battles. But, by all indications, party workers are unconvinced about the efficacy of the peace-making initiatives. According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a former legislator and political analyst, the very history of the strife within the second line leadership militates against peace-making and strengthens the misgivings of the cadre.

Tyagi points out that the strife between Mahajan, Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu has been raging for close to a decade. The conflict grew in proportion and intensity in the last six years, when the BJP was in power. Mahajan and Jaitley added yet another dimension to the struggle by presenting themselves as model administrators. But throughout the years in power, Tyagi adds, the power games were played largely in conformity with the larger organisational principles of the party. The organisational and political power of Vajpayee and Advani made the younger leaders behave.

But with the unexpected loss of power in the Lok Sabha elections, things started to change rather dramatically. It was more or less clear that Advani and Vajpayee would not be in a position to lead the next big battle of the party. This, more than anything else, encouraged the younger leaders to try and assert their supremacy over the party's organisational and political structure.

Uma Bharati and Sushma Swaraj were the first to throw their hats into the ring. Immediately after the shock defeat in the polls, they vied with one another for the role of the most aggressive campaigner against Congress president Sonia Gandhi. While Uma Bharati proclaimed that she would resign as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister, Sushma Swaraj went one step ahead and threatened to tonsure her head and lead an ascetic life until the "foreigner" was out of power.

Arun Jaitley.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Mahajan and Jaitley took sides in this fight, by backing Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati respectively. Apparently, Venkaiah Naidu, adorning the post of the "stately" president, stayed neutral. But that changed with the Tiranga Yatra. Venkaiah Naidu has certainly become anti-Uma Bharati, though it might be wrong to call him a Sushma Swaraj supporter.

According to several BJP and Sangh Parivar activists, the Tiranga Yatra and the national campaign pushed the strife to a new low. "It was always there," pointed out the former MP, "but the manner in which individual and factional interests were promoted during the present period was indeed appalling."

Developments in the days after the "rapprochement show" of September 27 have only strengthened the misgivings of the rank and file as well as observers about the "peace process".

Pramod Mahajan.-KAMAL NARANG

This was evident from the internal differences over accommodating Uma Bharati in the party hierarchy. Her supporters pointed out that she sacrificed the Chief Minister's post to advance the party's national campaign and that as a charismatic leader belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) her status should not be merely that of a national executive committee member of the party. They alleged that Venkaiah Naidu, Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj were scuttling the moves to elevate her position.

THE internal battle is bound to intensify in the days to come. BJP insiders say that it would acquire new dimensions after the Maharashtra Assembly elections. Already, Uma Bharati supporters have alleged that the Maharashtra unit is organising more programmes involving Sushma Swaraj though their leader has greater mass appeal. The Mahajan camp has responded by saying that "the sophisticated Sushma Swaraj" is more acceptable in all the semi-urban, semi-rural constituencies of the State. "Brashness does not work here," they said.

If the BJP-Shiv Sena combine wins in Maharashtra, Mahajan's supporters would portray it as his "personal victory" and demand a more prominent role for him in party affairs. A defeat in the elections will encourage Jaitley and Uma Bharati to intensify efforts to marginalise Mahajan. Indications are that while the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal favour Uma Bharati, a section of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) prefers Sushma Swaraj.

Sangh Parivar insiders point out that these alignments are not permanent. They will change as and when a leader gains in terms of popular appeal or organisational control. As things stand now, it is not clear which way the wind will blow or who will rise to the third important position in the party.

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