BJP: All is not well

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and M. Venkaiah Naidu at the party's Parliamentary Board meeting in New Delhi on November 9. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Shatrughan Sinha, the BJP’s Member of Parliament from Patna, greeting Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (left) in Patna on November 9. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The Bharatiya Janata Party is in a state of flux with party veterans poised to become the rallying point for forces opposed to the authority of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, particularly in the wake of the party’s defeat in the Bihar Assembly elections.

ONE prominent stream of discussion within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar hinged on the ramifications of the Bihar verdict for power equations in the party, the Parivar and the Narendra Modi government. The emphasis of these was that the reverses suffered by the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by it in Bihar would be exploited by sections in the party and the Sangh Parivar outfits to hit out against Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

However, the speed with which BJP veterans such as former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and former Union Minister Murli Manohar Joshi came out with an open statement, barely two days after the election results came out, surprised a large number of Sangh Parivar activists and observers. The short but forceful statement, signed by senior party leaders, including former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha and former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Shanta Kumar, did not take specific names but there was little doubt about its targets.

Opening with the assertion that “no lesson has been learnt from the fiasco in Delhi”, referring to the crushing defeat of the party in the Assembly elections in February at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), they said: “To say that everyone is responsible for the defeat in Bihar, is to ensure that no one is held responsible. It shows those who would have appropriated credit if the party had won are bent on shrugging off responsibility for the disastrous showing in Bihar. The principal reason for the latest defeat is the way the party has been emasculated in the last year. A thorough review must be done of the reasons for the defeat as well as of the way the party is being forced to kow-tow to a handful, and how its consensual character has been destroyed. This review must not be done by the very persons who have managed and who have been responsible for the campaign in Bihar.”

The statement was perceived within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as one that worked at different levels. In the immediate context, it was a rebuttal of the BJP Parliamentary Board’s conclusion a day after the announcement of the results that the party would take collective responsibility for the defeat. At a larger level, it directly pointed to the authoritarian hold Modi and Amit Shah have come to have over the BJP since the party’s victory in the Lok Sabha elections in June 2014 and expressed a readiness to take it on in the coming days. Of course, all these leaders also had individual grouses against the Modi-Shah regime in the BJP as they have been systematically sidelined over the past year and a half.

Commenting on the developments, a senior RSS activist from Lucknow told Frontline that the general perception in the Sangh Parivar was that this was the beginning of a larger movement within the BJP that was bound to have short-, medium- and long-term implications for inner-party manoeuvring as well as national politics. “On the face of it, some efforts have been launched to portray that the veterans are on the one side and the BJP’s official organisational machinery is on the other. The joint statement issued by three past presidents of the party—Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and M. Venkaiah Naidu—defending Amit Shah has been used to buttress this view.”

Their statement was intended to soften the impact of the veterans’ statements. While the joint statement agreed that the party was concerned over its defeat in Bihar, it also sought to remind “some senior members” that the party had won the Lok Sabha elections under Modi as also the Assembly elections in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir apart from winning the local body elections in various States. The past presidents promised that “the party will discuss the reverses” at various other fora, and even take it up with the senior leaders in order to address the factors that led to the adverse verdict in Bihar. According to the RSS activist, no one in the Sangh Parivar is taken in by this public posturing. “It will not take even 24 hours for the public posturing of many in the BJP to change. But things will develop concretely only after Parliament meets in the last week of November. The RSS leadership is also waiting and watching to see how much momentum the veterans’ move will gather. They will take a clear position after that evaluation,” he told Frontline.

Perceptions of a similar nature abound in various outfits of the Sangh Parivar as well as within the BJP in the context of the Bihar defeat and the statement issued by the veterans in its wake. A number of Sangh Parivar activists, during their interactions with Frontline, repeated the senior RSS activist’s view that loyalties are not permanent in the BJP in a situation like this. The general agreement among them was that the current tussle would continue at least till January 2016, when a decision would be taken on allowing Amit Shah a second term as BJP president. Evidently, the forces in the Sangh Parivar opposed to Modi and Amit Shah would want to scuttle the continuation of Amit Shah as party president. The perception, in this background, is that the veterans would become the rallying point for the forces opposed to Modi and Amit Shah.

MPs’ stand

There are also discussions on what sort of minute strategies would come into play in the run-up to the party president’s election in January. According to BJP and Sangh Parivar activists considered close to Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, a large number of Members of Parliament, predominantly Lok Sabha MPs, have expressed support to the veterans’ move. “The numbers are actually mind-boggling. As many as 120 MPs are in touch with them on a regular basis and a large majority of them are ready to take open positions as early as the November-December session of Parliament,” said a close associate of Murli Manohar Joshi.

While the number cited by Murli Manohar Joshi’s associate is bound to be questioned, especially in the context of the power balance within the party over the past year and a half, as many as eight BJP MPs from Bihar have mustered the courage to openly question the leadership provided by Modi and Amit Shah in the Bihar elections. They referred to different problems created by the campaign of Modi and Amit Shah in Bihar. Senior State leader Bhola Singh, an eight-time Member of the Legislative Assembly and two-time member of the Lok Sabha, minced no words in accusing Amit Shah of mismanaging the campaign and election tactics. The height of this mismanagement, according to Bhola Singh, was Amit Shah’s comment at an election rally that if the BJP lost Bihar crackers would be burst in Pakistan. He said the “cheap and undignified language” used by Modi during the campaign was also a major reason for the defeat.

“We promised to stick to the development agenda and talk of sabka saath sabka vikas, but Modiji himself changed track and started talking about cow slaughter and cow protection. He tried to emulate Lalu Prasad’s rhetoric but that did not work,” Bhola Singh said.

R.P. Singh, former Union Home Secretary and MP from Arrah, and Rama Devi, an MP from Sheohar, alleged that there was no communication or consultation with local leaders, including the MPs, while allotting the party ticket. They also alleged that many seats were sold to the highest bidders. Among other MPs who took up open positions against the Modi-Amit Shah election management programme were Hari Manjhi (Gaya), Ajay Nishad (Muzaffarpur), Nityanand Rai (Ujiarpur) and Chaudhary Birendra Kumar (Jhanjharpur). Shatrughan Sinha, an MP from Patna, has been taunting Modi and Amit Shah ever since the campaigning for the Assembly elections began. After the BJP’s defeat, his taunts have become more aggressive. If the open expression of criticisms from the BJP’s Bihar MPs is any indication, the claim of Murli Manohar Joshi’s acolyte could well be true.

However, the firm conviction among a large number of Sangh Parivar insiders is that the final say in the current power play would rest with the regional satraps of the BJP, particularly Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh, the influential Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. “They would have a good clout among the national executive committee members, especially from their own States, and it can prove decisive if they throw in their lot with one group or the other. As of now, they are also waiting and watching, like the RSS. Indeed, they are also among the lot ill-treated by Modi and Amit Shah in the party organisation. But they would primarily want to know what could be their gain in terms of realpolitik and organisational manoeuvring before taking any position,” the senior RSS activist said.

Evidently, it is a state of flux within the BJP and even insiders are confused as to who will emerge the winner in the tussle. The perception that disgruntled senior leaders such as Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, who are part of the Union Cabinet, are also likely to take an open or nuanced anti-Modi-Amit Shah position in the run-up to the party president’s election is also being expressed in this context. These discussants within the Sangh Parivar said Rajnath Singh would be happy to be the alternative power centre, as party president, than play second fiddle to Modi in the Cabinet. In fact, it is no secret that he did not want to be a Minister in the first place and that Modi forced him to give up the primary organisational position and join the Cabinet.

These perceptions and the factors relating to them are at play in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in the post-Bihar context. While all these developments point to a tumultuous and fairly confusing state of affairs, there is little doubt about the central message for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar leadership from the Bihar verdict: The all-conquering supreme leader’s political and organisational authority has dwindled and so has his capacity to dictate terms to others.

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