Loss of face

Print edition : December 03, 2004

The events that led to the suspension of Uma Bharati from the Bharatiya Janata Party point to a serious credibility crisis in the party after Advani's assumption of office as president for another term.

in New Delhi

Uma Bharati, after her suspension from the BJP.-

WHEN L.K. Advani took over from M. Venkaiah Naidu as the Bharatiya Janata Party president recently, he did so amidst reports of intense rumblings among the party's second-line leaders, who had been trying to cut each other to size in full public gaze. It was, therefore, expected that Advani, who has steered the party in difficult times in the past and taken it to great heights in electoral battles, would be able to achieve a similar miracle after the party had been beaten badly in the Lok Sabha elections and in the recently held Maharashtra Assembly elections.

However, his leadership qualities faced a severe test with his decision to call a meeting of the party's new office-bearers in New Delhi on November 10. There was nothing unusual in calling such a meeting as BJP presidents, immediately after taking over and constituting their teams, have chosen to meet and interact with their colleagues at the first available opportunity. During such meetings held earlier, they generally exchanged pleasantries and dispersed, deferring any discussion on contentious issues.

Thus when the party invited the media, especially the television channels, to report the meeting live, it was considered to be the high-point of its exercise in transparency, with Advani clearly intending the meeting to be a high-profile event marking the inauguration of his new team. Although it was for the first time that the party invited the media to cover such a meeting in which only a few senior leaders took part, all indications were that it was likely to be a tame affair with the team reaffirming its resolve to go ahead under Advani's leadership.

Therefore, when Advani broached the subject of taking differences within the party to public forums and how it affected the party's image, it was certain that it would hurt Uma Bharati who had just been appointed general secretary. Indeed, Advani had not only made her general secretary, but acceded to her demand for a major role in the party's affairs in Madhya Pradesh. Uma Bharati had delayed her decision to accept Advani's offer of the post, precisely because there was opposition within the party to her demand vis-a-vis Madhya Pradesh.

It is not as if Advani did not have the opportunity to sort out the differences. Uma Bharati had met Advani before the meeting, and it appeared that the issues had been sorted out following her appointment. But Advani raised the issue at the meeting and indicted Uma Bharati along with other leaders such as party vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and general secretary Shahnawaz Hussein for their public spat. It was uncharacteristic of him; he had handled similar differences among party leaders deftly before. He said normally he would not name individuals, but he was constrained to do so this time because he had no "answers" when party activists asked him why these leaders behaved in this manner.

Advani's reference was to Uma Bharati's interview to a few journalists, in which she described her colleague Pramod Mahajan as satte ka dalal (a power broker) and criticised him for his lavish lifestyle and approach, which, she alleged, was responsible for the party's debacle. She made no secret of her displeasure at his inclusion as general secretary in Advani's new team. Uma Bharati was also critical of her successor-Chief Minister in Madhya Pradesh, Babulal Gaur, in the interview. Her contempt for Mahajan had grown with the latter allegedly scuttling her `Tiranga Yatra' in Maharashtra and elsewhere, which she launched following her surrender to the local court in the Hubli riots case. While Naqvi was critical of Uma Bharati's public outburst against Mahajan, Hussein came to her defence.

With Uma Bharati's popularity in Madhya Pradesh firmly established following the party's remarkable win in the Assembly elections, other second-line leaders in the party, namely Venkaiah Naidu, Mahajan, and Sushma Swaraj - all from the Rajya Sabha - grew increasingly suspicious about her designs. That she was preparing herself for a new phase in the party after the Vajpayee-Advani era was obvious. With mass support behind her in the Hindi heartland, it would be difficult for the Sangh Parivar to deny her claim for a leadership role in the party in the coming days. Thus, for her rivals, the compulsion to check her was greater now than ever before.

Put in this context, some sections in the party asked whether Advani was correct in raising the issue, knowing fully well that it was bound to hurt Uma Bharati and provoke her to retaliate. In full view of the television cameras, Uma Bharati asked Advani whether it was all right for some leaders from the Rajya Sabha to give off-the-record interviews to the media showing her in a poor light. When the newspapers carried them prominently, she had no option but to talk to the media in order to put the record straight, she argued. To this, Advani replied that the matter was closed, and implied that she need not raise it again.

Finding Advani's response unfair - he held her responsible for the public spat but gave her no opportunity to present her case - Uma Bharati insisted that the matter should be discussed. When Advani persisted with his refusal to allow a discussion, she had no option but to walk out, blaming her rivals in the party and deploring the president's move to paper over the issue after naming her in public.

Uma Bharati's outburst and walkout, shown live on television, shocked party leaders, who ensured that the media were kept out soon after the episode. All other office-bearers urged Advani to remove her from the party post and the party's membership in order to send across the message that the party was above individuals and indiscipline would not be tolerated. Already Advani had been under considerable pressure not to pamper her with a party post and thereby create an impression that he was giving in to her demands. With the unanimous demand to throw her out of the party, Advani's hands seemed to be tied, and her suspension until "further notice" was announced by party vice-president Jaswant Singh after the conclusion of the meeting. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who witnessed the high drama at the meeting, also endorsed the move by saying that it should have been taken earlier.

All these only strengthened the suspicions among impartial observers that Uma Bharati's suspension was probably pre-planned by her detractors in the party and Advani was only too willing to be used as a tool. The decision to televise the meeting and the raising of the issue of Uma Bharati's interview to the media appeared to many as deliberate actions intended to embarrass and isolate her. If Uma Bharati is guilty of indiscipline, what about Advani who raised the party's internal matters in front of television cameras, ask Uma Bharati's supporters.

To date, the party has no explanation as to why she could not become Madhya Pradesh's Chief Minister again, after the Karnataka government has withdrawn the case of rioting against her before a Hubli court, whose summons to her forced her to quit the post and take up agitational politics. Uma Bharati's supporters point out that Advani in similar circumstances, after having been acquitted in the hawala bribery scandal case, considered himself to be morally suitable for any public position. The party's refusal to make her the Chief Minister again smacks of not only internal resistance to her leadership claims, but an inherent bias among the Brahmin-Bania leaders against the emergence of strong and independent leaders from the backward classes.

The television coverage of the party drama at Ashoka Road, New Delhi, on November 10 hugely embarrassed the BJP. After claiming that a show-cause notice would be issued to her on why she should not be expelled from the party, the leadership buckled under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) whose leaders had given a sympathetic hearing to her after her suspension. She met senior RSS leader H.V. Seshadri and joint general secretary Madan Das Devi to explain her stand. The party now has second thoughts on issuing the show-cause notice, and it is even contemplating the option of withdrawing the suspension.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which had briefly boycotted the recent RSS Pratinidhi Sabha held at Haridwar, at which Advani and Venkaiah Naidu were present, chose not to comment on the suspension, calling it an internal matter of the party. The VHP, like the RSS, is sympathetic to Uma Bharati but is unlikely to intervene in the matter on its own, considering the RSS' stand on the issue. The RSS, it appeared, is keen on her reunion with the BJP and would try to mediate between her and the leaders. The RSS is worried that her suspension has given a potent issue to the Congress and the Left parties, which would now seek to embarrass the BJP on the issue. The Congress spokesperson has already compared her humiliation by the male-dominated BJP office-bearers to the disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata. It is felt that such an impression would further alienate women from the Sangh Parivar.

Uma Bharati continued her battle by writing an emotional letter to Advani on November 11 and delivering it personally to him at his residence that night, before leaving on a pilgrimage to Kedarnath in Uttaranchal, her favourite destination whenever she was in distress. In her letter, which she read out to the media, she described her suspension as an act of God that would not change the dasha aur disha (state and direction) of her life. Implicitly, she claimed that Advani's action was unlikely to influence her stand and force her to seek an apology from him in order to facilitate her readmission into the party. She also averred that she did not find any strain of indiscipline in her behaviour at the meeting.

Clearly, Advani is no more a "tall leader" in the party as he used to be before he became the party president once again. Ironically, his formal anointing as party president in an irregular manner following Venkaiah Naidu's resignation, and without the RSS' overt backing (the RSS preferred former Union Minister Murli Manohar Joshi to Advani as president), has coincided with the diminution of his influence within the party.

In the past, the BJP has taken back Kalyan Singh, when it was faced with a bleak electoral prospect in Uttar Pradesh, forgetting his publicly aired diatribe against Vajpayee. Uma Bharati's exit has not led to an immediate crisis in Madhya Pradesh, with her followers choosing to lie low for the moment. But as the party realises her usefulness as the main campaigner in the Hindi heartland where a few States like Bihar and Jharkhand have Assembly elections next year, the pressure to compromise with her is bound to increase.

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