Picking their lotus and eating it too

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IT’S A scenario made in heaven for an Opposition party. From corruption to clumsy politics, the Congress-led UPA government has given the BJP issues on a platter. Yet each time the BJP has scored a goal, some gremlin from one or the other of its several inner cupboards has crept out to mock it.

This summer it has had to sack two chief ministers — BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka and Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ in Uttarakhand — for corruption. That apart, the equilibrium achieved by giving Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley charge of the parliamentary wing of the BJP and Nitin Gadkari control of the party organisation has proved short-lived.

LK Advani’s sudden announcement of a rath yatra and reigniting of prime ministerial ambitions has put the party in a tizzy. The issue of Narendra Modi poses problems of its own.

Why is the BJP in this state? It cannot just be corruption, an issue on which the UPA government has much more to worry. Its central dilemma is a void at the top. Where once there was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s towering presence, today there is only an absence.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
The old guard RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat will still have a big say in BJP’s political affairs
Photo: Monica Chaturvedi

The lack of central leadership and authority has so disenchanted old party loyalists that a few years ago former BJP MP Arun Shourie burst out, “Bomb the headquarters, clean up everybody from the top. Bring 10-15 people from the states who are competent, honest and dedicated and reconstruct immediately.”

Shourie was angered by what he considered blunders of the then party president, Rajnath Singh, and of Advani. That remark was followed by an RSS crackdown on BJP veterans including Advani. However, fundamentally little seems to have changed. Party sympathisers concede Shourie’s statement would hold good even today. As Jaswant Singh, a rebel now reinducted, maintains, “There is a crisis, a need for a leadership, a disciplined leadership.”

What is really hurting the party is the inability to connect with the voter, despite the opportunities thrown up. Indeed, there is complete confusion in the party as to what the voter really wants. A sample of this came with the reinduction of Uma Bharti. Two months ago, the temperamental sanyasin was brought back into the party and given charge of Uttar Pradesh, which sees Assembly election in summer 2012.

Many seniors skipped Bharti’s induction meeting. It was telling. She was expelled from the party in 2005 for indiscipline and is at daggers drawn with almost every senior leader, from Swaraj to Jaitley to Rajnath, who feels she is walking into his turf in Uttar Pradesh.

However, with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and VHP leader Ashok Singhal backing her, she was brought back in. The RSS rationalised Bharti’s angularities because she was a “home-grown leader with a strong mass base”, rather than one with an “English-speaking sensibility”. In fact, when Jaswant was brought back, RSS veteran MG Vaidya wrote a scathing article in Parivar publication Tarun Bharat: “Take back Uma Bharti, her crimes are less than Jaswant Singh’s.”

This schizophrenia is typical of the BJP, a party of competing vetoes. Many senior leaders were not in favour of bringing back Bharti, arguing that the public mood was not in favour of emotive issues of religion and identity. While Swaraj went out of her way to talk about how she had discussed “fruit diets with Umaji”, the façade was not difficult to see through.

Not surprisingly, Bharti has come a cropper in Uttar Pradesh. In desperation, the BJP has asked former chief minister Rajnath to take active interest in the state. Yet Rajanth now sees himself as a national leader. He refuses to be pushed back into state politics and has recommended Kalraj Mishra as state leader.

As a BJP functionary close to him says, “The fact is Rajnathji today finds himself in opinion polls along with Modi, Sushma and Advani in the race for the prime minister’s position. Why would he want to go back to Uttar Pradesh? Also you have to understand he has managed to do this despite not being in a powerful party position like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj.”

THE ZERO-SUM game in Uttar Pradesh is illustrative. The fact is the party is not moving because a series of in-house contradictions means many senior leaders have cancelled out each other, or allowed other ambitions to flower.

Take Rajnath as an example. As party president, he evoked strong factional loyalties in the BJP and the RSS. He tried to use these to impose his choice of successor. This did not happen and Bhagwat pushed the candidacy of Gadkari. Gadkari started with a low profile but is now believed to be developing ambitions of his own, starting with his imminent second term as party chief.

Ramesh Pokhriyal
Out of favour Ramesh Pokhriyal had to quit as Uttarakhand chief minister
Photo: AFP

In the past two years, Rajnath had gone into political oblivion. Swaraj and Jaitley had become the faces of the party, but it was their mutual antagonism that gave Rajnath another chance. Jaitley and Rajnath are old rivals — though they have of late made common cause in Uttar Pradesh. When the mining scandal exploded in Karnataka, Rajnath sprang to Swaraj’s defence and sought to placate an enemy’s enemy.

Interestingly, as the Karnataka crisis escalated and Yeddyurappa refused to quit as chief minister, it was Jaitley and Rajnath who were rushed off to handle him and the transition. Both knew this crisis was crucial to their future and to being seen as organisational managers. Yeddyurappa’s defiance had exposed the central leadership’s Achilles’ heel, its inability to tame: larger-than-life regional strongmen.

That Rajnath was part of the problemsolving team in Bengaluru meant that his stature rose. Thanks to the Jaitley-Swaraj bickering and courtesy his RSS network, he has become the third of the Delhi-based troika. The battle between his two rivals has given him an opening.

FACTIONALISM IS both horizontal and vertical in the BJP. While the corruption charges in the Lokayukta’s damaging report eventually sunk him, Yeddyurappa had had a rough ride for quite some time. To some degree, he was a victim of politicking at the national party headquarters. Here again is another unique BJP phenomenon. However high they may rise, BJP leaders in New Delhi continue to meddle in state politics.

Rajnath doesn’t want to go back to Uttar Pradesh but wants to exercise his choice there. In Karnataka, Yeddyurappa was given a tough time by an alliance formed between Ananth Kumar, who was lobbying with Advani and the central leadership for the chief minister’s job, and state-level opponents.

In Maharashtra, where the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance has lost three successive state elections despite poor performances by Congress-NCP governments, the rivalry between Gadkari and state strongman Gopinath Munde is the stuff of legend. Munde has threatened to resign three times in the past three years. He has openly negotiated entry into the Congress.

 BS Yeddyurappa
South story BS Yeddyurappa also resigned following corruption charges
Photo: AFP

Each time Munde has been persuaded to stay back. Yet these sniper wars have taken their toll on Gadkari’s authority. Despite being elevated to national party presidency, he continues to be mired in state rivalries. This has befuddled many in the party. In fact, Gadkari has been talking about a party policy group for Maharashtra- related matters. Nobody is sure when that will emerge and what it will do.

THE FINAL contradiction in the BJP relates to simply age. As the octogenarians hang on and on, the septuagenarians sulk, the sexagenarians wonder how long they will have to wait, and the 40-somethings stare at an impossible mountain, every promotion avenue blocked.

While Advani obviously still sees himself as prime minister material, he has placed his protégés, Swaraj and Jaitley, as leaders in Parliament. This has upset his old rival, Murli Manohar Joshi, who finds himself the man in the middle.

Not surprisingly, he has been attempting to steal the thunder. As Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said when accusing Joshi of leaking the redrafted Public Accounts Committee (a body Joshi heads) report on the 2G scandal, he (Joshi) was seeking credibility for his work having been denied it by his own party.

Joshi was not happy with the manner in which his report was treated by his parquittalty. He felt his good work had been deliberately undermined because the BJP had made the setting up of a Joint Parliamentary Committee its goal. Having been so isolated, he has been hitting back, most famously when he called the BJP’s tie-up with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand a “theatre of the absurd”.

Not that Advani is beyond such unilateralism. His rath yatra announcement is one example; in February 2011 there was another. Advani got the party to officially release a rather dodgy report on black money overseas. The report was a cut-andpaste job and cited unverified and obscure newspaper reports to accuse Rajiv Gandhi of parking money overseas.

Having so embarrassed the party, Advani compounded the problem a few days later by apologising to Sonia Gandhi for a report that nobody in the party’s top brass, other than Advani himself, had wanted to sanctify in the first place.

Finally, there is a youth issue. Rahul Gandhi may be undergoing extraordinarily long teething troubles in his political career but he still has name and brand recall in his early 40s. Two of every three Indian voters today is in the youth category. The BJP has little to offer them. At various points, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Anurag Thakur, Smriti Irani and Shahnawaz Hussain have been spoken of as BJP youth icons. After his anti-minority statements of 2009, Varun Gandhi has found it difficult to galvanise his career. As his recent anti-party tweets make apparent, the frustration is showing.

As it is, no doubt, from the party’s prime minister in eternal waiting, to its most humble worker.