WHEN NARENDRA MODI stood up to deliver his speech this past week at a public meeting, following the BJP national executive at the Kamgar ground in Mumbai’s Parel area, he was welcomed with thunderous applause. After Modi, it was BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s turn to speak. But by then a section of the crowd had already begun to move out.
If this upset Gadkari, he hid it well. He knows his position, much like he did six years ago. In July 2006, Modi and Gadkari had shared the dais in Mumbai, when the Gujarat chief minister had spoken at Shanmukhananda Hall. The occasion was the BJP’s anti-terrorism rally after the Mumbai train bombings.
Modi used his trademark mannerism to focus on his favourite subject — Islamist jihad. Sitting on the dais, and very inconsequential to the event, was Gadkari, the then chief of the Maharashtra BJP. That morning Gadkari had personally called senior journalists from Maharashtra to cover the event; he was after all seen more as a BJP manager than leader. Ushering in Modi, Gadkari had then said: “Narendra Modi is our answer to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He has been the only national leader to have the guts to fight terror.”
Cut to 2012, and things haven’t changed much for the BJP. A committed Sangh man, Gadkari was made the party president as a compromise choice by the Sangh Parivar in 2009 and has been given a second term by the BJP leadership again. The RSS saw in him a man who could placate everyone and keep his own ego in check. “He is a good PR person, has a good rapport with all the workers, manages the media well, has a solid financial backing, courtesy his cooperatives,” says an RSS pracharak.
Perhaps that is what came in handy for the BJP when the infighting within the party made headlines. It was Gadkari who was not just given the task of convincing Sanjay Joshi to resign but also make him see reason. “The Sangh backs you, the pracharaks respect you, relinquishing your position will not impact your role in the party,” Gadkari is believed to have told Joshi.
For Joshi, who has now been given charge of the Uttar Pradesh municipal polls, it was deja vu. He had resurfaced in the BJP when he was given charge of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election much against Modi’s wishes. The Gujarat chief minister, who has seen Joshi as a rival since their younger days in the party in Gujarat, refused to campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
As things would have it, Modi’s opposition was wrongly timed. It coincided with his Sadbhavana Yatra, which got the RSS up against him — with able prodding from the anti-Modi lobby in the Sangh, including former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi. It is alleged by the Sanjay Joshi camp that Modi played up the news of tainted BSP reject Babu Singh Kushwaha’s induction into the BJP. He got the party and media to paint Gadkari and Joshi in poor colours for this decision.
SOON RUMOURS began that Modi was being considered for the BJP presidency. He was inching towards his larger goal. His colleagues and seniors in the BJP like LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj had ceased to be a problem for him, but that is where the problem began for the BJP. Modi, with help from Arun Jaitley, the man considered closest to him in the party, began the process of damage control.
For a start, he turned his eye on possible poll scenarios for the NDA in 2014. This meant looking at prospective allies and consolidating his position with likely NDA partners. Modi was at the forefront of opposing aspects of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre in April along with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (who calls him a friend). He was present at the swearing-in ceremony of Parkash Singh Badal (the Akali patriarch calls Modi a lighthouse for the country).
Another significant ally of the BJP, Bal Thackeray, recently iterated his affection for Modi when he said: “No major decision in the BJP can be taken without Narendra Modi.” Among other possible allies for the NDA, Mayawati, in spite of her attempts at cosying up to Muslims, has never been anti-Modi. Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference recently praised Modi’s solar energy programme and called it exemplary. Modi tried to extend the bridge of friendship to the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee too when he attacked the Left parties. As a young BJP leader, considered close to the Modi camp, says: “Barring Nitish Kumar, nobody terms him a pariah anymore.”
But does that mean the stage is all set for Modi? There is no doubt that after the national executive in Mumbai, he has emerged as a super-strong leader in the BJP. To get Advani to walk out of a party executive — a first in 25 years — is an achievement. So is, in a sense, Sushma Swaraj’s tepid attitude as opposed to her aggressive body language as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Modi’s most vocal and insidious adversaries in the party have had to present arguments in his favour every time he has found himself in the thick of controversies, be it for fake encounters or the SIT report. They have resorted to fighting the battle with Modi via the “intellectual and liberated” media that seeks redemption for the riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002.
If events of the past week are taken into account, then Modi does stand a fair chance of living his dream — also the dream his mentor Advani has lived all his life, one that has become the bone of contention between the two — and make a bid for the prime ministership. But as his own supporters concede, “In the BJP, there are no permanent friends or foes. Everybody is a friend of convenience.”
MODI KNOWS it could take just a sharp turn to throw him off-balance. It was this insecurity that made him get the RSS high command to force Sanjay Joshi to take a flight from Ahmedabad to Lucknow — as against Joshi’s earlier plan of travelling by train. Modi was informed by his coterie that Joshi could meet loyalists at stations in Gujarat, consolidating his support after having made the “sacrifice” of giving up his BJP position for the sake of amity in the Parivar. Modi’s close confidant Ram Madhav is alleged to have played a key role in bailing him out.
‘Barring Nitish Kumar, nobody terms Narendra Modi a pariah anymore,’ says a young BJP leader close to the Modi camp
But much against Modi’s wishes, Joshi could still mean trouble. While looking after the Uttar Pradesh municipal elections, the latter is cultivating new allies. Young leaders like Varun Gandhi, who have been left to fend for themselves and have been disapproving of Modi’s increasing clout, are alleged to be ripe for ‘cultivation’. Varun and Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj are both lobbying to be appointed general secretary of the BJP in UP. For Joshi, in turn, the UP municipal polls are a last chance to prove himself.
Joshi, a Maharashtrian, started his innings in 1988 in the RSS. He was Modi’s colleague in the early 1990s, leading up to the BJP’s victory and the coming to power of the Keshubhai Patel government in 1995. Shortly afterwards came Shankersinh Vaghela’s rebellion. Modi was shown the door and Joshi became general secretary of the BJP in Gujarat. The rivalry between the two grew when Patel came back to power in 1998. So when Modi launched the oust-Keshubhai campaign, Joshi was a natural target for being close to the CM.
In 2001, Modi returned to Gujarat as chief minister, having forced Patel to resign. Joshi was packed off to Delhi. He was made general secretary of the BJP in 2005 but forced to resign in a few months after the sex CD controversy.
At the national level, Modi has many concerns — old rival Murli Manohar Joshi, the LK Advani camp and Nitin Gadkari
PARADOXICALLY, DESPITE the hype in Mumbai, Modi is a worried man. His immediate threat comes not from Advani or Sushma but from the enemies he made in Gujarat while climbing up the ladder. Amit Shah might have been busy camping with Modi in Mumbai, but the sword of the former Gujarat home minister’s rebellion keeps hanging. The ganging up of leaders like Keshubhai Patel and Gordhan Zadaphia, along with a section of the RSS that includes the Sanjay Joshi camp, is a concern. This could bring down Modi’s numbers in the 2012 Assembly polls.
Another key minister of Modi, Purshottam Solanki, who commands a strong votebank of the Koli community, finds himself embroiled in a fisheries scandal. Solanki’s meetings with Keshubhai and Zadaphia have left Modi frowning.
At the national level, Modi’s old rival Murli Manohar Joshi continues to hound him. Gadkari intends to contest the Lok Sabha elections and has chosen Sanjay Joshi as his poll manager. Gadkari also has a relationship of convenience with Rajnath Singh. The Advani camp — M Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar, and to some extent Sushma Swaraj and young leaders like Rajiv Pratap Rudy — is at a low. But it could perk up depending on the election results in Gujarat and events in Karnataka.
That leaves Modi with his good friend Jaitley, the third and perhaps a one-man camp in the BJP. A man who is on good terms with the RSS, is a former protégé of Advani and one of the most articulate men in the BJP, Jaitley is called the “new-age Chanakya”. He allegedly engineered the Yeddyurappa controversy and media conference. Sources in the BJP say Yeddyurappa’s statements calling Jaitley and Modi the only national leaders in the party were a result of this shrewd engineering.
Perhaps Modi senses this too. Those close to him believe that although he is inching towards power, Modi might bat for Jaitley if heading the NDA coalition for him becomes impossible. The man who would be king will then have to be content playing kingmaker.
Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.