Parivar’s predicament

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Home Minister Sushikumar Shinde's comments on 'Hindu terror' has breathed some life into the BJP's Hindutva politics. Here, a protest by BJP workers in New Delhi on January 24. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi calling on the new Bharatiya Janata party president, Rajnath Singh, in New Delhi on January 27. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat with Nitin Gadkari, then the BJP president, in Vrindavan in October 2010. Photo: PTI

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. His antagonigm towards Narendra Modi is well known. Photo: PTI

Internal divisions have produced a chaotic leadership situation for the Congress’ main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, ahead of the 2014 elections. In addition, there is no clarity in the party on what its core electoral issues should be.

TWO political events, which occurred almost simultaneously in the last fortnight, may have a significant bearing on the future of the two mainstream political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The beleaguered Congress, after careful calculations, finally took a bold decision by elevating Rahul Gandhi as the Number 2 in the party and also signalling that he will be the prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections. Rahul’s probation was becoming unending, tiring, and perhaps a subject of caricature. Without guessing the outcome of “Rahul effect” on the Indian electorate in the 2014 general elections, it may be fairly ascertained that this decision will at least give a sense of purpose to the party at this critical juncture and particularly rejuvenate the youth wing in the run-up to the next electoral battle.

Whereas Rahul’s anointment was smooth and scripted with perfection, for the troubled BJP the choice of a new party president came as a dramatic surprise. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which was determined to give Nitin Gadkari another term despite serious allegations of corruption against him, changed its script at the eleventh hour. This kind of forced retreat was once unusual in the history of the Sangh. Though an alleged Congress conspiracy executed through the Income Tax Department was used by the Parivar as a face-saving argument, the real reason was somewhat different. There was a near revolt by a strong section of the BJP against Gadkari’s renomination, which threatened to sabotage the long-standing tradition of so-called consensus in the election of the party president. Pragmatic elements in the Sangh leadership realised the gravity of the situation and wisely retracted by replacing Gadkari with another Sangh confidant, Rajnath Singh, at the right time.

Why was the RSS so keen to protect and promote Gadkari? Surely not just because he came from Nagpur and had systematically cultivated the Sangh leadership over decades. More importantly, this swayamsewak has proved to be extremely loyal, dependable and resourceful and one who, unlike Narendra Modi, does not nurture any ambition to grow at the expense of the Sangh. Gadkari never forgets to acknowledge publicly that whatever he is today, it is only because of the Sangh. Thus, Gadkari’s character was perfectly in sync with the Sangh’s strategy to control the BJP during the crucial period before and after the 2014 elections and also to checkmate overambitious BJP leaders such as Modi, in case they dare challenge Sangh diktats. Further, if the post-2014 political climate became favourable, the Sangh might even throw its weight behind Gadkari as the prime ministerial candidate. Hence, the Sangh insisted on Gadkari’s renomination despite strong opposition within the party because of the allegations against him. Obviously, the stakes were very high for the RSS. The last-minute change may have come as a compromise, but the deal still favoured the RSS as Rajnath Singh has always been the Sangh man. Earlier, the Sangh had nominated him to replace L.K. Advani as party president.

Challenges before Rajnath

Rajnath Singh takes over at a delicate moment in the history of RSS-BJP relationship, and he has to address some key issues on an emergency basis. First, he needs to reaffirm that the relationship is symbiotic and the BJP will never deviate from the broad Sangh line; after all, the BJP is a Sangh project. At this juncture, this reaffirmation is crucial as the BJP’s electoral win is impossible without active support from the RSS. He may also have to assure the Sangh leadership that the deviationists within the party will not be allowed to take centre stage, though that would be a difficult promise to keep, looking at the growing number of non-conformists within the party.

Secondly, divisions within the party have become quite acute. During the Jan Sangh years and in the early years of the BJP, the Sangh, due to its moral influence, was able to control factionalism to a large extent. With its ascendancy to political power, however, the BJP has been converted to a “party with differences”, the plague affecting all levels—national, regional and local. These divisions have not only damaged the BJP, but dented the disciplinarian character of the RSS as well. For the Sangh, it has been disheartening to helplessly watch the siblings fight: Modi and Keshubhai Patel, B.S. Yeddyurrappa and Ananth Kumar, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Uma Bharti, P.K. Dhumal and Shanta Kumar, Kalyan Singh and Kalraj Mishra, and the list goes on.

As the logic of power divides them, the same logic of power will perhaps unite them as well. If Rajnath Singh and the RSS create hype around the BJP’s potential return to power in 2014, then there is a strong possibility of the warring factions arriving at a truce, at least temporarily. For Rajnath Singh, with his organisational experience and an image that is relatively non-factional, it may be possible to achieve this objective with the intervention of the Sangh.

The third related factor is projection of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. As mentioned earlier, with Gadkari at the helm, the RSS perhaps would have liked to wait and watch without committing itself to anyone in particular. However, the elevation of Rahul Gandhi and the replacement of Gadkari have given a new twist to the situation. The Parivar is divided in the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust, not only within the BJP but also between the RSS and the BJP. However, the Parivar would not like to create a situation when a “Rahul vs None” contest gives the Congress gives an edge.

RSS dilemma over Modi

In this context, Narendra Modi’s projection as the prime ministerial candidate becomes a major issue. Modi’s sweeping electoral victory in Gujarat for the third consecutive time, the success story of his “Gujarat model” of growth and governance, his uncompromising and “non-appeasing” Hindutva politics, captivating oratory with rhetoric and political sarcasm, and authoritarian style of leadership have made him the darling of the common BJP cadre. However, there is a leader-cadre divide within the BJP and the Parivar on the question of Modi. As Modi increasingly captures the imagination of the party cadre, particularly the youth, and his popularity spreads beyond the boundaries of Gujarat, he is also alienated from a chunk of the party leaders, particularly those without a mass base, who fear being eclipsed by him. Even his fellow Chief Ministers, such as Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who also enjoy strong mass bases may not accept Modi’s leadership quietly.

The growing personality cult of Modi does not disturb the BJP leadership alone, it also threatens the RSS. Modi’s authoritarian style of functioning alienated, in Gujarat, wings of the Parivar such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS). Though the RSS strategically remained silent, it never approved of his behaviour. As Modi won election after election despite the non-cooperation of and even open opposition by a strong section of the Parivar, the RSS gradually lost its earlier clout vis-a-vis Modi. The distance grew further as an arrogant Modi started even ignoring the Parivar. Now the tables have been turned; Modi’s national ambition has compelled him to draw closer to the Sangh. Thus, there is a serious trust deficit, though both need each other desperately. What will the RSS do now? Its plan to control Modi through Gadkari has already fizzled out.

Ideally, the Sangh would like to use Modi’s charisma by giving him a pivotal role in the electoral campaign without projecting him as the prime ministerial candidate, thereby leaving enough scope for post-elections manipulation. But it seems the Sangh may not be in a position to exercise this option as the pro-Modi campaign has been gaining momentum within the BJP. Non-RSS BJP leaders like Yashwant Sinha have been strongly advocating Modi’s anointment as the prime ministerial candidate, and many Modi loyalists are getting impatient to join the bandwagon. Party cadre are getting restive; they think it is only Modi who can take them to New Delhi in 2014.

So then, how long will the Sangh be able to defer this decision? When will that “appropriate time” come? The Sangh is in a trap: it desperately wants to win the 2014 elections, an objective that may not perhaps be achieved without Modi’s leadership.

The NDA factor

Even if the Sangh concedes reluctantly on Modi, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) may prove to be another obstacle in the way of his political ambition. The days of single-party majority in the Lok Sabha are over, with the emergence of strong regional parties and the inevitability of coalition politics. Even if some kind of revival and rejuvenation of the BJP under Modi’s leadership is anticipated, there is almost no possibility of its being able to form a government on its own.

As the BJP’s tryst with power is very much linked with its alliance partners in the NDA, Modi’s candidature must get their approval. The Janata Dal(United), a major alliance partner, has taken a consistent position questioning Modi’s credentials as a secular leader, and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s open hostility towards Modi is well known. Any unilateral announcement by the BJP would be politically unwise. Another important partner, the Shiv Sena, has announced its preference for Sushma Swaraj. Modi’s proximity to Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), perhaps, encouraged the Shiv Sena to switch its preference from Modi to Sushma Swaraj.

As the capture of Delhi now largely depends on coalition politics, the BJP should look for new partners for the NDA as the base of this formation has shrunk considerably since the Vajpayee era. Modi’s charisma may work with the BJP, but can it displace the strongly entrenched regional satraps? Moreover, the secular-communal divide will deter many players from joining the NDA fold. While Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to sacrifice the Trinamool Congress’ Muslim support base, N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Dasam Party (TDP) would not like to dent his secular credentials either. Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) may hesitate to trade with the BJP again. Only a few regional players such as Jayalalithaa and Raj Thackeray may be willing partners of Modi. Thus, as far as alliance-building is concerned, Modi’s elevation will perhaps create more problems than it resolves. If resistance to Modi from the NDA gains momentum and threatens the survival of the coalition, it might provide the Sangh with some reasonable excuse to defer Modi’s anointment. As the BJP is unlikely to hand over the leadership to any alliance partner, the Parivar will have to find an alternative to Modi within the party.

Advani’s resurrection?

The problem with the BJP is that there is no dearth of prime ministerial aspirants: Modi, Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, to mention a few. Now Yashwant Sinha, while batting for Modi, seriously claims himself to be qualified for this post. If Modi’s candidature is opposed by other aspirants and strongly resisted by the NDA, then Advani’s resurrection may perhaps make sense for the BJP. True, Advani has lost his sheen and has been ignominiously sidelined by the Sangh. But his experience and stature, honesty and maturity, still command respect within the party and outside. In case of a crisis over leadership within the BJP, he would have greater acceptability as a compromise candidate within the party and also among the NDA partners. Further, if the 2014 verdict returns a hung Parliament, he has the potential to rope in new partners to the NDA fold. The Sangh may have been disillusioned with Advani, but he still seems to be the best bet in a scenario in which Modi is ruled out of the race. Will the Sangh accept this situation? There is a big question mark.

Core campaign Issues

Apart from the confusion over leadership, there is also no clarity in the Parivar on the core electoral issues for the 2014 elections. Exposing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime on issues such as corruption, inflation, foreign policy, foreign direct investment (FDI), terrorism and internal security would be the staple of its campaign. Ironically, the BJP does not really offer anything substantially different from the Congress. Thus, it has to come out with something attractive for the common voter, particularly the youth.

In the past, the BJP did well when it appealed on emotional issues such as Hindutva, which polarised the electorate and paid dividends. How far will Hindutva play a role in the 2014 elections? The popular mood today perhaps does not offer an atmosphere conducive to Hindutva-related issues. Ordinary Indians, particularly the bourgeoning population of young people, are mainly concerned with issues such as livelihood, shelter, education, health, employment and good governance in their everyday lives. As the BJP lacks the imagination to address these issues, it may still take recourse to issues such as “Hindu terror”, Pakistan, and so on. One can hear reverberations of Hindutva when Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s remarks on “Hindu terror” get an aggressive response from Rajnath Singh and the Parivar. Though in the normal course Modi’s campaign is bound to raise Hindutva issues directly and indirectly, his desire to prove himself as a non-communal national leader may find him in a different avatar. He will certainly make the Gujarat model of development a major electoral issue.

Thus, the 2014 battle for New Delhi is going to be crucial for the Parivar as it cannot afford a third consecutive defeat. The present ideological, political and organisational predicament of the BJP to some extent reflects the confusion prevailing in the Sangh itself. The RSS is passing through a period of transition and general change in leadership, prioritising collective leadership by a group of relatively young pracharaks under the present chief Mohan Bhagwat. This leadership is struggling hard to reorient the Sangh in the context of changing social and political realities. As a result, the Sangh-BJP relationship is passing through a difficult phase. Despite such difficulties and predicaments, the 2014 elections may perhaps become a cementing force for the Parivar.

Pralay Kanungo is Professor & Chairperson, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.