One party one leader can the BJP achieve this feat?

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IN THE aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement annulling the appointment of PJ Thomas as chief vigilance commissioner (CVC), schisms seemed to appear among the BJP’s top parliamentary leaders. Once the prime minister accepted responsibility, Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, offered to “let matters rest and move forward”. Her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha wasn’t as charitable. Arun Jaitley continued to ask tough questions and pushed Manmohan Singh to specify which individual in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was responsible. This led the prime minister to name Prithviraj Chavan, former minister of state in the PMO. Chavan in turn, blamed the Kerala government led by the CPI(M)’s VS Achuthanandan. And, the circus continued.

Was this civil war, nuanced positioning or media over-interpretation? Given BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s backing of the Jaitley line, where does it place Sushma vis-à-vis the rest of her party? Is she the odd woman out in a male-dominated entity, as gushing television anchors have been quick to point out?

To be fair, despite the recent disagreement, Sushma and Jaitley still see themselves as a formidable team. In the past few months, they have transformed the BJP’s parliamentary performance — the comparison with 2004-09 is marked — and worked towards a sober, broad-spectrum Opposition unity in both Houses. The UPA has been cornered on governance issues and corruption. By steering clear of contentious subjects and adventurism, the BJP has not allowed the Congress to isolate it from other non-UPA parties.

Given Gadkari’s backing of the Jaitley line on CVC, where does this leave Sushma?

Within the party, Jaitley and Sushma have found a supporter in Gadkari. Unlike his predecessor, Gadkari is not insecure and complicated in his relationship with his legislative peers. He does not delude himself that he is a future prime minister (at least not yet). Though appointed by the RSS, he has provided the Sushma-Jaitley team cover from the extremes and possible unreasonable demands of the Sangh, emphasising the ‘politicals’ in the BJP need functional autonomy.

This liberation of the BJP’s parliamentary arm from those who see the party as the extension of a millenarian cult would not have been possible in the absence of trust and perfect understanding between Sushma and Jaitley. Tactical, short-term and expedient, or enlightened and purposeful: whatever you may call it, both Jaitley and Sushma need this unity for the moment.

Nevertheless, the two have very different political personae and self-identities. Sushma is a great orator in the classical political mould, capable of making a rousing speech in a variety of languages but always taking the big picture. Jaitley sees himself as debater rather than orator, the technocratic politician focussed on the nitty-gritty and the disguised sub-clause on page four of a 40- page document.

The attributes complement each other; sometimes they may compete. Yet do they necessarily come into conflict? As one BJP functionary put it, “We are used to party leaders being labelled ‘hardliners’ and ‘softliners’ on ideological or Hindutva issues. But on corruption? That’s a new one.” He sought to blame the electronic media exaggerating things.

Even so, some verities do stand out. Twenty years ago, the BJP spoke in one voice on corruption and transparency in public life. Today, it makes many more compromises and is much more compromised. This is an unfortunate, but understandable legacy of having been in power at the Centre and in the states for two decades now. Even within the RSS, there are sections that see corruption as a secondary priority.

In these matters, Jaitley has a history of being a difficult customer. For years, he has been the BJP’s last man standing on Bofors. As early as January 2006, in a television interview, the Hinduja brothers singled out Jaitley for special mention (he has the “wrong impression”, is “unnecessarily wasting his time”). In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Jaitley and then party president Rajnath Singh clashed on the role being given to a controversial businessman associated with the BJP. For better or worse, this is his political branding.

Top triumvirate Sushma Swaraj, LK Advani and Nitin Gadkari put up a show of unity that hides the cracks beneath the surface

ON HER part, Sushma’s motivation is to grow into the role of a wide-umbrella leader, somebody who carries along all shades of opinion and can distinguish between a political difference and permanent hostility. It is unexceptionable that she would want to appear prime ministerial and a person the establishment can do business with. Her tweet on the CVC issue was a clumsy and perhaps misjudged attempt at projecting this image.

All in all, the Sushma-Jaitley equation is less allout warfare and more a subtle contest for the same political space. Both are portraying themselves as centrist, Vajpayee-type leaders, who can attract allies and constituencies rather than repel them, and who can build a larger National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including a possible understanding with the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam and other such regional forces.

Of course, there is a third person in their age-band who must also be weighing his chances. Narendra Modi is the most successful chief minister of his generation but also the most polarising. To the party rank and file, he is the leader of choice. How far he can swing the NDA, though, will depend on how many seats the BJP can win on its own, and how hard it can bargain.

As the party begins to consolidate its freedom from the Sangh, individual ambitions will show

Sushma, Jaitley and Modi all agree that the BJP needs to reinvent itself outside the Hindutva shadow. Indeed, the defensiveness in the Sangh leadership following the revelations on the ‘saffron terror’ fringe has given the three of them, and Gadkari, greater room than was available to the BJP in any period since 2004, when Nagpur micro-managed the party.

As the BJP consolidates its freedom from the Sangh and its long-delayed generational shift, however, individual ambitions will begin to articulate themselves. Inevitably, there will come a time for choosing. A joint leadership is okay in 2011 but as 2014 nears, the party will be forced to jettison its multiple-captain approach and plump for one person.

Who will that person be? Will the decision be solely the BJP’s, or will NDA allies (and possible extra-NDA partners) also dictate a choice between the BJP’s new Big Three? Should the BJP consider an election, as happened when the Congress took a call between Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi in 1966? Questions, questions…

malikashok@gmail.com

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