IF WISHES were horses, it has been said, we would ride. In the case of the BJP, the horses would already leapfrog Narendra Modi from his swanky new office in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, of which he is chief minister, to 7, Race Course Road in New Delhi, the official residence of India’s prime minister for nearly three decades. Lately, the drumbeats in the party have turned deafening to force the leadership to name Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for next year’s General Election. Complementing the hype is The Candidate himself, who quickly took centrestage at several public dos spelling out his India Vision in a whistle-stop tour, clearly believing he has all but stitched up the ticket as the BJP’s putative nominee.
The horses among India’s political commentariat have already forecast a clash of the titans — between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the putative nominee of the Congress party, which has led India’s ruling coalition since 2004 winning two back-to-back parliamentary elections. Weary from governing for nine years, the last few of which scams and scandals have tarnished, the Congress is being picked on for failing to name its prime minister should it win a third straight term. It hasn’t helped that Gandhi, who has refused to accept any executive office since first becoming MP in 2004, has once again denied prime ministerial ambitions. Manmohan Singh, who has already clocked the third longest tenure among all prime ministers, has on the other hand appeared to suggest he would be happy to continue. Irrelevant, say the horses, for Modi would beat both.
Not so fast though. There are indications from within India’s largest opposition party that it would be anything but a slam-dunk for Modi. There is a flank of BJP leaders that still fancies its chances that Modi needs to slay before he can lead the party and its coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in its bid to regain power at the Centre it lost to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) nine years ago. And Modi, say insiders, has not only been aware of it but is moving to counter it.
Indeed, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s outburst against him last week did not surprise Modi. Sources say Modi had alerted veteran BJP leader from Bihar, former union minister CP Thakur, before Kumar kicked up dust by saying Modi’s candidature would not be acceptable to his party, the JD(U), the second largest NDA constituent. Visiting New Delhi in March to demand that the Centre grant Bihar a special status with more federal financing, Kumar had rattled the BJP with words of praise for the UPA.
Modi camp followers say Kumar’s coming out against him must not be seen in isolation from other goings-on within the BJP. They are of a piece with factional politicking that has played out in the BJP, some times not so quietly, for two years. The most visible of these was an internal coup this January that robbed Nitin Gadkari, who was the party president, of a second term and installed Uttar Pradesh strongman Rajnath Singh in his place. Party insider also point to the scandal over the alleged bid by a private eye to secure the mobile phone call records of Arun Jaitley, and say there is more to the case than meets the eye. In short, speculation is now the order of the day inside the BJP. And it is all linked to a fight to the finish — the 16th Lok Sabha elections due in 2014.
The Old Fox
For a brief while, Lal Krishna Advani was the patriarch of the BJP. Until the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in which he led the party to its worst defeat in six parliamentary elections in nearly two decades. The ignominy saw him shunted out as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha with a much reduced role within the party. Less than three years later, however, Advani had begun to resurrect himself with an eye on seizing the mantle of his party’s leadership again. October 2011 saw him launch a nationwide roadshow to highlight corruption in the Manmohan Singh government. Where did he start it from? Bihar. Who flagged him off? Nitish Kumar.
It is important to note that in attendance were a slew of important BJP leaders, including Sushma Swaraj, who replaced Advani as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and three other former union ministers from the BJP — Anant Kumar, Venkaiah Naidu and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. The date was significant: October 11, the birth anniversary of the late Jayaprakash Narayan, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi who had brought the RSS followers on the same platform with other anti-Congress parties, which became the first non-Congress group to seize power in New Delhi in 1977.
LAST WEEK, Nitish Kumar indirectly came to the aid of Advani, now 85, by speaking out against Narendra Modi. (Some even speculate privately if Advani had foreknowledge of Nitish Kumar’s rant.) The Bihar chief minister is believed to be very close to Jaitley and Swaraj, apart from, of course, Advani. It is insightful that several other BJP leaders, not the least of whom is Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, have lately spoken eulogistically of Advani, calling him the party’s tallest leader.
Many were foxed when former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, a known Advani supporter, appeared to have switched to Modi’s advocacy last month. But Sinha did a somersault again and called Advani as the senior-most BJP leader saying that all “discourse” on who would lead the party in the 2014 election should cease. A source close to Sinha says his flip-flop was actually planned. “Narendra Modi would need at least 180-200 seats in the Lok Sabha because most allies won’t support him,” he says. “But Advani can be the prime minister even if the party wins 140 plus seats.”
The worst sting for Modi may well come from its most durable partner, the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra. In an editorial in the party mouthpiece this week, the party asked the BJP to forthwith name its prime ministerial candidate. Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut told TEHELKA that although the party’s late leader, Bal Thackeray, had spoken of his preference for Sushma Swaraj for the top job, the party would be happy to extend support to Advani. To counter the Shiv Sena, Modi appears to be making his counter move. Many see the recent visit by leading industrialist Ratan Tata to Raj Thackeray, a nephew of Bal Thackeray’s who broke away from the Shiv Sena to set up his own political party in 2006, made at Modi’s behest. Tata and Modi have reportedly been close since the Gujarat chief minister gave Tata land to set up an automobile project in 2008.
But Advani appears to hold an edge for now with another of the BJP’s ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal of Punjab. “Nobody can object to his candidature,” Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujral says of Advani. “He is a senior and respected leader.” JD(U) president Sharad Yadav too chipped in: “ We fought the 2009 elections with Advani at the helm. There should be no problem with him now.”
Other party leaders such as Jaswant Singh, Uma Bharati and Varun Gandhi, who was recently made a party general secretary, have been unflinching in their support of LK Advani. But there is a memory from the past that still rankles Advani. In 1996, he buckled under RSS pressure and made way for Atal Bihari Vajpayee to become the prime minister.(That government had fallen in 13 days because the BJP could not muster enough allies.) Advani is keen to discard the tag of “ex-future prime minister” that has tailed him since then. But to reach the top job, he must be able to mollify the RSS leadership which believes Advani had not a small role to play in Gadkari’s ouster in January. At two meetings of the party’s top national leadership Advani has spoken of how to win support of the other parties in order to regain power in New Delhi. He held forth on secularism, urging the party to a goal of bringing in Dalit and Muslim votes.
The Big Chief
Any time he is asked about the Gujarat chief minister, Rajnath Singh has a set answer: “Narendra Modi is the BJP’s most popular leader.” Despite a running rivalry with Jaitley and Advani, Singh has played his cards well. Until last year Singh was virtually a write-off. Ever since Gadkari replaced him as party president in December 2009 Singh was always at hand to counsel him. That friendship paid off last January as Gadkari, while stepping down, saw to it that Singh succeeded him in the saddle. Singh laughs off any suggestion that he might be a candidate to be prime minister. “I’m not interested in it now and I don’t intend to be in the race in the future,” he told TEHELKA in New Delhi. “The BJP parliamentary board will decide who should be prime minister.”
Joining the RSS at the age of 13, Singh, now 61, shot to prominence in 2000 who he was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh to save an imploding party, much the same way Modi was sent to Gujarat two years later. But unlike Modi, who created a dream run for himself, Singh presided over the collapse of the BJP in India’s politically most influential state. The BJP was routed in the February 2002 assembly elections and fared poorly in UP in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, leading to its ouster from the Centre. The party is yet to recover from that downfall in UP. Seven years later, he was the BJP’s national president when it infamously lost in its bid to recapture New Delhi.
And yet, Singh fancies himself as a dark horse in the race to the prime minister’s office. According to source close to him, Singh is counting on the possibility that the RSS would force Advani to back off in view of its earlier antagonism towards the octogenarian, at which point Singh would emerge as the candidate acceptable to both the RSS and other allies in the NDA. The Rajnath Singh camp dismisses his poor showings as BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh. The fact is, they say, that he hails from the state that sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the largest among all Indian states, which is more than what Modi can claim, who will need to wade through complex caste factions within the party in that state. Also, Singh is believed to be well connected with moneybags whose assistance would be crucial in winning the support within the party. Singh’s ties with BJP leader, businessman Sudhanshu Mittal, who is embroiled in the scandal over Jaitley’s phone call records, would help him in both the RSS and the BJP.
Many see Singh’s enthusiastic camaraderie with Modi as political posturing amid uncertainty that may well continue until the year end. Some have already begun to see a parallel with the 1996 story when Advani was forced to make way for Vajpayee. When he was being made party president this January, an RSS leader joked: “It seems Modi has found his Vajpayee.” Would the joke be on Singh or on Modi?
In The Wings
Of course, it isn’t going to be easy for Singh, for there is yet another BJP chief minister with far superior credentials than his. In fact, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is a favourite of the RSS, which Modi is not, and is a successful chief executive in his state, which Rajnath Singh could not be. That RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has visited MP five times in recent months speaks volumes about Chauhan’s closeness with the RSS brass. Bolstered by such open support from the ideological parent, Chauhan has now taken to aggressively publicising his own development credentials with a vengeance, especially on twitter. Insiders say Bhagwat — who miffed many in the party as they thought he was unduly promoting Gadkari — sees Chauhan fit to take on India’s top job. And the Madhya Pradesh chief minister had insisted in an exclusive interview to TEHELKA in December 2012 that Modi was not the only successful chief minister with a good record on development. Chauhan is known as a man of the soil in his state and has a loyal cadre base.
Now only 54, Chauhan, too, joined the RSS at the early age of 14. He was still a teenager when he was arrested during the Emergency of 1975-77 for participating in protests against the dictatorial rule of then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. After winning five straight Lok Sabha contests, he was sent to Madhya Pradesh as chief minister in 2004 shortly after two other chief ministers, including firebrand Uma Bharati, failed to make a mark. And he has stuck there since then, winning a second term in 2008.
“Chauhan is one of our best CMs,” says Rajnath Singh but refuses to be drawn into a comparison between him and Modi. A BJP leader, requesting not to be named, says Chauhan is the “perfect foil” to Modi’s candidature. “While Modi is all about himself, Chauhan projects himself as an inclusive leader,” he says. But despite his sheen and the fresh approach that Chauhan brings to the party rank and file in Madhya Pradesh, many believe Chauhan lacks the personality, experience and seniority to be a serious contender for the prime minister’s job. Moreover, he hardly has a pan-Indian appeal. Also, Chauhan is an unknown to the corporate bigwigs, who prefer to rub shoulders with Narendra Modi. Also, before the big test of 2014, Chauhan faces an Assembly election later this year where he will have to beat the fatigue of a 10-year incumbency to keep the BJP in power. If he fails, his graph would head south. Of course, he would like to believe there was a grain of truth when the maverick politician, Subramaniam Swamy, told him: “You have it in your horoscope to be Prime Minister.”
Time was when Uma Bharati was the shining star as a woman in the BJP. But over the last two decades, Sushma Swaraj turned up trumps while Bharati was relegated to the margins of the party’s politics. Swaraj, 61, is now the most important BJP leader insofar as holding a statutory political office is concerned. She is the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and follows in the footsteps of Advani, Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, two of whom were also prime ministers. Known for her forceful speech-making that breaks into poetic interludes, Swaraj is also a favorite of the various NDA allies, with many of whom she has a direct and good rapport. The RSS, which is another kettle of fish as an all-boys club, has never quite warmed up to her.
And yet, Swaraj fancies her chances, too, for she is nothing if not a long-standing lieutenant of Advani’s. Should Advani get stumped in his attempts to become prime minister, goes the theory being circulated in her favour, the old man would push for her to be accepted as the prime minister against pushes from Modi and Rajnath Singh. As noted above, the late leader of Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, had explicitly backed her as the best candidate to be prime minister. Swaraj also enjoys a good working relationship with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa and Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati, both of whom could prove to be crucial in propping an NDA government. But Swaraj’s reputation has been besmirched by her past associations with three politician brothers, together known as the Reddy brothers of Bellary, in Karnataka who are currently in prison on charges of running illegal mines.
It is said that BJP veteran Arun Jaitley can only be number two to all the above leaders but never the prime minister himself. On the other hand, says a party source, these leaders would be making a serious mistake by underestimating his ability to emerge as the ultimate dark horse.