Q&A Rajnath Singh, 61, President, BJP
IN POLITICS, there are no permanent friends, as there are no permanent foes. Perhaps the BJP’s newly elected president Rajnath Singh can vouch for that. Having gone into oblivion after stepping down as the party president in 2009, Singh is back at the helm of affairs. In his first stint, Singh ruffled several feathers. He was critical of senior leaders like LK Advani, and his friendship with businessman Sudhanshu Mittal led to frictions with Arun Jaitley. If the internal differences are anything to go by, the going will be anything but easy this time. Singh will not only be expected to lend a voice of reason to a party rife with differences of opinion, he will also be expected to take the RSS agenda to the next level — the reason why his candidature was strongly espoused by Nitin Gadkari and his acolytes in the RSS. He will also be expected to keep at bay the leaders sceptical of the RSS influence on the BJP. Narendra Modi’s name has been floating around as the potential PM candidate, and it may not help Singh to remember how he played a crucial role in ousting him from the BJP’s parliamentary board. In the board meeting slated for next month, Modi is likely to be given an important charge for the next General Election. Singh was also responsible for Jaitley’s removal as party spokesperson. Four years later, Singh has no qualms in calling Modi “the most popular leader in the BJP” and firmly denies having differences with Jaitley. But, despite his political correctness, his first big move as the party president stirred controversy. During his recent visit to the Maha Kumbh, his Ram Mandir statement stirred a controversy that was further stoked by VHP and RSS leaders. And though he chose to be diplomatic about the statements of Yashwant Sinha and Ram Jethmalani on Modi’s candidature, Singh’s aides claim he finds himself in an uncomfortable position — tackling the RSS agenda, the egos of his senior party leaders and his own equations with them, all at the same time. In conversation with Rana Ayyub, Singh sheds some inhibitions to talk about the credibility crisis that the party must confront today.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
You have completed a month as president of the BJP; not the best of times when the party seems to be a divided house. How have you managed so far?
(Laughs) Divided house? Well, let’s call it a democratic house where everyone has a right to express his or her opinion, unlike in the Congress party. In my earlier term as the BJP president, I think I was rather successful and managed to bring everybody in the party to a consensus on most issues. But that doesn’t mean our outgoing president Nitin Gadkari fared any less better. Gadkariji, like our party, has been a victim of conspiracy by people who did not wish to see him as the BJP president, those who wished to malign the BJP.
Accusations have been levelled against your own insiders and senior members who were believed to be against Gadkari.
That’s a figment of somebody’s imagination. There were forces at work that wanted Nitin Gadkari out. He too was pained at the corruption allegations levelled against him. It was his call to resign in the interest of the party.
And the RSS got you in after open rebellion by Ram Jethmalani and Yashwant Sinha.
I was brought in with the blessings of our party seniors. And the RSS, too, though a non-interfering body, did give its blessings. Yashwant Sinha is an experienced party member. He and many others made certain statements in the media, which were construed as the party being a divided house. So, in the party’s interest, I instructed all members to refrain from speaking in public on matters that should be debated internally by the parliamentary board members.
Were you upset that some leaders asked you to anoint Narendra Modi as the PM candidate?
Who am I to do that? In the past couple of months, the media has been deciding PM candidates for the BJP, and has been insinuating about Narendra Modi. Today, Modi is one of the most popular leaders in the party, liked by party members across the country. However, there will be no decision on the PM candidature until the BJP parliamentary board meets, possibly sometime in March.
The RSS seems to have given a go-ahead for Modi.
No, that decision is left to senior members of the BJP who will sit together and nominate a candidate best suited for 2014. My personal opinion is that Modi has done good work and tops the popularity ratings, but let’s wait and watch.
But the BJP that spoke about ‘Generation Next’ also has options like Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, who are equally popular. What about them?
We haven’t ruled out anyone. Let the parliamentary board sit and decide. It’s a democratic party in which a decision will be taken in the proper forum, which will then have to be accepted by all, irrespective of their personal opinions and differences. That’s the beauty of the BJP.
Is it also the beauty of the BJP that it talks of development, and then does a volte face, returning to the divisive Ram Mandir issue? Aren’t you back playing the politics of Ram Lalla?
Not at all. Let me set the record straight. I was asked at the Maha Kumbh if Ram Mandir will be a part of our agenda and I said, yes, just like it was a part of our agenda in the past five General Elections. Ram Lalla has been a part of our manifesto. Having said that, we would rather wait for the apex court’s decision and come to a conclusion that is in agreement with our Muslim brothers. Muslims in our country have to stop treating the BJP as their enemy No. 1. We have as much respect for them as for the Hindus. But Ram Mandir is not the agenda with which we go to polls. Development for the masses and inclusive growth will be our agenda.
How? By projecting a man who was responsible for State-sponsored riots in Gujarat as the PM contender?
See, you are mixing up two things. The BJP is against the politics of appeasement. We believe in taking steps unlike the Congress, which has only done lip service to the minorities and used them. The Afzal Guru hanging is a classic case of appeasement by the Congress.
Whose appeasement? All this while you held the Congress responsible for holding back Afzal’s execution?
The manner of his execution was wrong and so was the timing. It clearly reeked of political opportunism, to help the cause of its own PM aspirants and improve its prospects in the Lok Sabha election, which it wants to hold in 2013. They should have shown some humanity and Afzal Guru’s family should have been informed. That’s the due process. Besides, one should also take into account the sentiments of his family members. Muslims in this country need to wake up. Senior Muslim leaders today speak for the BJP. Why? Because they are tired of the doublespeak of the Congress, which has taken them for a ride. You talk of communal politics. Can you point out any instance of communal riots when I was the CM of Uttar Pradesh?
Is the BJP ready for a General Election in 2013?
Oh, we are totally prepared and won’t hesitate to go to polls in 2013. We have no appeasement tricks up our sleeve.
Even when states like Karnataka that go to polls this year are slipping from your hands? BS Yeddyurappa’s rebellion will certainly impact your party.
I will be honest. No doubt, Yeddyurappa was a senior leader of our party and has a mass base. But his leaving doesn’t mean Karnataka is slipping away from us. In fact, we have emerged stronger in Karnataka with good governance, which gives us an upper hand over other parties. It’s the same in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, which will set the agenda and the tone for the next General Election. The BJP has an edge over the Congress. We are sure of forming the government with our allies.
Which allies? The JD(U), which has been vocal in opposing Modi, who you call your most popular leader, or the Shiv Sena, which has made its stand clear…
I don’t think Nitish Kumar or the Shiv Sena have said anything to that effect. Also, this discussion will happen when the BJP appoints Narendra Modi as its PM candidate and discusses it with the NDA allies, but our parliamentary board is yet to meet and take a decision on this. Rest assured, the BJP will keep in mind the sentiments of its allies before finalising a name. Nitishji is a valuable ally, so are the Shiv Sena and the Akalis.
How do you intend to take on the Congress, especially on ‘choppergate’?
This is the Congress’ Bofors II moment. I think our defence minister should step down. But I am more astounded by the role of the CBI, which is being run by the Congress. Though the defence minister has ordered a CBI inquiry, the fact remains that the scam was unearthed by Italian investigating agencies. What were our agencies doing all this while? Were they unaware of the kickbacks that the middlemen were receiving? The Congress had been hiding this issue in the closet, but then it came out. This is the most embarrassing moment for a party whose reputation has already been damaged by the 2G scam. We believe the 2G probe was greatly influenced by the Congress and the CBI merely acted on the party’s diktats. The real culprits are still at large.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM, the then national security adviser Brajesh Mishra had raised concerns over the single-vendor route in the buying of new choppers. Why was no action taken during the NDA regime?
Brajesh Mishra, if I am not mistaken, had spoken about guidelines framed earlier that had led to a single-vendor situation. After that, the BJP went out of power and the Congress brushed the issue under the carpet.
Have you made peace with the factions in the Sangh Parivar? What about your less-than-congenial relationship with Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi?
(Laughs) Arre nahi, we are all friends. This happens every day in politics. Ek family mein bhi toh log jhagadte hain (Even members of a family fight among themselves). At the end of the day, we are all part of the same Parivar. My top priority is to get the party into election mode, and right now, there is no room for personal aspirations and fights. I have been brought in to get the house together, and I believe I have the support of everyone in the party.