Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 21, Oct. 13 - 26, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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THE STATES

A pracharak as Chief Minister

V. VENKATESAN
in New Delhi

WITH Narendra Modi taking charge as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders can no longer convincingly portray the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as an apolitical cultural organisation. Although the RSS has not directly taken part in elections so far, it has lent the services of its pracharaks (full-time bachelor propagandists) to the erstwhile Jan Sangh and the BJP for party work. These pracharaks provided an interface between the RSS and its political arm of the day. K.N. Govindacharya, Narendra Modi, Sunder Singh Bhandari and Kushabhau Thakre were some of the pracharaks deputed to the BJP.

While Bhandari became a Member of the Rajya Sabha, and was later appointed Governor of Gujarat, Govindacharya, Modi and Thakre devoted themselves to organisational work and resisted the temptation of accepting elected office. Such detachment was a major criterion for the choice of the BJP's general secretary in charge of organisational affairs; he was entrusted with the task of choosing candidates for elections and planning and executing the party's campaign strategy.

Does not the fact that Modi is the first ever RSS pracharak to become a Chief Minister, without seeking the people's mandate, betray a sense of desperation and disregard for democratic values on the part of the BJP-RSS-VHP combine? Modi was no doubt the architect of the BJP's electoral victory in the 1995 and 1998 Assembly elections in Gujarat and is a source of inspiration for the entire BJP-RSS-VHP cadre in the State.

But the circumstances of his exit from Gujarat politics in 1995, soon after Keshubhai Patel assumed office as Chief Minister, smacked of his quest for extra-constitutional authority. Un-mindful of norms, Modi remained present at a meeting the Chief Minister had with his senior bureaucrats in Gandhinagar. It earned him the epithet of 'super Chief Minister'. Irked by Modi's frequent intervention in government affairs, Keshubhai Patel requested the central leadership to shift him from Gujarat. Modi was then brought to Delhi as general secretary and put in charge of the party's activities in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

But, in the 1998 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Gujarat, Modi's role in the selection of the BJP's candidates was palpable. He sidelined the 'Khajurias' (party MLAs of doubtful loyalty because they sided with rebel leader Shankarsinh Vaghela during the 1995 political crisis and were holed up in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, but later returned to the party). On the other hand, he rewarded the 'Hajurias' (loyalists) in the hope that it would end the faction war that brought down Keshubhai Patel's first government in 1995 and the government of his successor, Suresh Mehta, in 1996. However, in the quest for unity the party did not heed Modi's advice to deny nomination to the 'semi-Khajurias' among the BJP's 76 MLAs in the outgoing House. Now, his leadership of the government is likely to alienate the moderates.

In New Delhi, Modi's equations with senior leaders underwent a subtle change, perhaps necessitated by the group loyalties that determined one's status in the party. Thus, he was identified with Murli Manohar Joshi and then he became a staunch follower of L.K. Advani and later Atal Behari Vajpayee.

He was put in charge of the party's campaign machinery in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in Gujarat. Modi successfully wooed committed voters on an emotional platform - avenge the fall of its earlier governments - through the RSS-VHP-BJP network of activists. He returned to the party's central office after the elections, but continued to show discreet interest in the party's affairs in the State. Modi was critical of Keshubhai Patel's leadership style.

Keshubhai Patel's style, which some people considered an arrogant one, also apparently alienated quite a few leaders in the BJP, who had earlier thought he was irreplaceable in view of the solid support he enjoyed among the Patel community. The central leadership noted that Keshubhai did not think it necessary to pay a courtesy call on the Prime Minister to greet him after the National Democratic Alliance's victory in the 1999 elections. Dwindling industrial investments and sluggish development, complaints of abuse of power by Keshubhai's close kin, and the party's debacle in the local body elections last year, all lent urgency to the demands for his removal.

Thus, when the search for a new leader to head the government began, the central leaders were not concerned about the successor's caste profile, or Keshubhai's potential to create trouble. During his last few interactions with the central leaders in Delhi, Keshubhai Patel had even threatened to quit the party if he was not allowed to have a say in the choice of his successor. But the party turned down his suggestion that one of its Union Ministers from Gujarat be sent to Gandhinagar, on the grounds that it would lead to two byelections, one to the Assembly and the other to the Lok Sabha.

The central leaders were convinced that Keshubhai Patel had squandered his mandate of 1998 and no one of his choice would be able to stop the party's slide in the State. Thus Modi, who is untested as the leader of the party and the government in the State, became their choice.


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