Rajnath Singh – Best man for the parivar?

Succession battle Nitin Gadkari (right) himself suggested Rajnath Singh’s name once his position became untenable
Succession battle Nitin Gadkari (right) himself suggested Rajnath Singh’s name once his position became untenable Photo: Shailendra Pandey

BOTH FRIENDS and foes of Rajnath Singh are astonished at his fortune. For someone who so believes in destiny that his closest political assistant is also his astrologer, the stars have certainly proved auspicious. On 23 January, Rajnath came back to the presidency of the BJP that he had lost following the defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. As the opposition to Nitin Gadkari proved too much for the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, to stave off, Rajnath was the beneficiary — the candidate the Sangh and the political dissidents within the BJP could agree on.

To those who know Rajnath, a former lecturer of physics from Gorakhpur University who served as agriculture minister under prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and was the BJP’s last chief minister in Uttar Pradesh between 2000 and 2002, the events of 22-23 January may not have seemed as much of a surprise.

As TEHELKA has tracked in its stories (seePicking their lotus and eating it too’, 24 September 2011) Rajnath had been diligently working towards a comeback in recent months. This was a culmination of a process of silent trading with leaders across the RSS and the BJP.

In 2009, when Rajnath relinquished office, he seemed to have burnt bridges with just about every senior BJP leader — including LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Yet, if he is back today, it is precisely because these players, as well as the RSS, neutralised each other enough to ensure no one person or faction — and there are at least three major factions in the BJP — would win the internal battle and manage to impose its choice as party president.

As the war intensified through the winter, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi used his proxies to campaign against a second term for Gadkari, with Ram Jethmalani adding to the pressure. The Advani camp saw Sushma, M Venkaiah Naidu and HN Ananth Kumar prodding Yashwant Sinha to file his nomination against Gadkari. If RSS sources are to be believed, Advani proposed Sushma as an alternative but her name was shot down and she stepped back, realising the Sangh wasn’t with her. Advani then suggested Naidu, who seemed set to file his nomination papers. At this point, Jaitley and Balbir Punj — both part of the Modi group — came in the way.

Meanwhile, Gadkari, who till the morning of 22 January was convinced of a second term — having had a chat with RSS leaders, including general secretary Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, in Mumbai — was in for a shock. News of income tax raids and surveys against him and his companies went viral. A desperate Bhaiyyaji Joshi called Advani to convince him to back Gadkari but found the patriarch unmoved.

The ball was in the Sangh’s court. It had to find a candidate who would toe its line as well as find acceptance among BJP leaders. Gadkari himself suggested Rajnath, having seen him as an ally and mentor in his stint in Delhi. This is where Rajnath’s years of hard work and cultivation came of use. The man shunted out of the presidency in a manner little different from Gadkari’s removal this time — and accused of allowing the RSS to micromanage BJP affairs in his term — was in the saddle again.

At the official election of Rajnath, the BJP put up a show of togetherness. Advani made a few ambiguous remarks about the need to guard against corruption and about Gadkari working nights while the rest of the party leadership worked days, but otherwise everybody praised each other. Rajnath acknowledged his predecessor generously.

Asked about the entire episode, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar insisted, “Everyone wanted Gadkari to continue, but he was reluctant from day one and said since the Congress is targeting me and putting false charges against me, I will fight it out as I have nothing to hide.” Javadekar also called the income tax investigations against the Purti Group, which Gadkari founded, an example of “Congress vendetta politics”: “It was not even a raid. There were searches carried out without any basis. It was done for photo-ops.”

Nevertheless, the fact is party insiders were worried Gadkari’s re-election — the Purti Group faces accusations of funding and equity ownership by dubious shell companies — would cripple the anti-corruption campaign against the UPA government. Speaking on television, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh had welcomed Gadkari’s possible second term and implied it would give his party lots to talk about. By exiting the arena, the political-businessman from Nagpur has denied the Congress that opportunity.

WHAT DOES Rajnath bring to the table? In a party that is still largely urban in its profile, he is the standout rural face, having projected himself as a politician who understands concerns of farmers. As Shahnawaz Husain, the BJP MP from Bhagalpur (Bihar), put it, “Rajnathji is well recognised in rural areas by farmers. Apart from being the leader of the party, he is also the leader of farmers … We would get the benefit of that.”

Unlike Gadkari, Rajnath has experience of grassroots electoral politics. He took a big gamble in 2009 when he contested Lok Sabha elections from Ghaziabad. It was a tough seat but he worked hard and won. This won him respect and has given him an advantage over peers in the BJP who have thus far shied away from direct elections or preferred safe, Sangh-nurtured constituencies.

Yet, Rajnath’s previous term saw intense factionalism and infighting peak. His proximity to controversial businessman Sudhanshu Mittal, particularly before the Haryana state elections of 2009, when the BJP mysteriously decided to go it alone and eschew alliances, has raised eyebrows. When Rajanth appointed Mittal in charge of BJP state units in the Northeast, Jaitley began boycotting meetings to which Mittal was invited.

Rajnath has also presided over the BJP’s decline in Uttar Pradesh. Earlier this week, he was instrumental in welcoming Kalyan Singh back into the party and there was some irony to this. It was Kalyan’s removal as chief minister in 1999, as part of a campaign Rajnath orchestrated, that began the BJP’s slide in the state. In 2007, when Rajnath was party president, the BJP collapsed to 51 seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly of 403 members, its worst performance in two decades. In 2012, it did even more poorly.

A good performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election is contingent upon Uttar Pradesh delivering seats to the BJP. This will be Rajnath’s principal challenge, as he is the party’s top leader from the heartland state. There are those who argue that not only will Rajanth bring his fellow Rajputs into the BJP fold but that he will work with his friend Kalraj Mishra, senior BJP politician in Uttar Pradesh, to weld together the different groups in the local party unit.

FOR THE BJP, the road to New Delhi lies through not just Uttar Pradesh but a clutch of other states. At least two of these will pose questions to Rajnath, albeit in different ways. He has work to do in both Karnataka and Gujarat. In the former, the BJP government, the first the party formed in southern India, is in danger of being unseated following the rebellion of BS Yeddyurappa.

Even as Rajnath was settling into his new job, trouble was brewing in Bengaluru. Two ministers in the Karnataka government — Public Works Minister CM Udasi and Energy Minister Shobha Karandlaje — and 11 MLAs announced their decision to resign from the Assembly. This group of 13 is loyal to Yeddyurappa. Their departure would seem to have reduced the government of Jagadish Shettar — the BJP’s third chief minister in its 4.5 years in office — to a minority.

“The MLAs have no confidence in this government,” said Dhananjay Kumar, publicity head of Yeddyurappa’s newly formed Karnataka Janata Paksha, “it is all the BJP’s doing. This government cannot last. They ousted our leader who the people trusted …” Just how deep the wound goes is apparent from the fact that Dhananjay is a BJP and RSS veteran who was a minister in Vajpayee’s 13-day government in 1996, the first time the BJP tasted power in the national capital.

There are rumours that at least two other MLAs and one more minister may resign in the coming days. On 23 January, events acquired some hilarity as the breakaway legislators went around Bengaluru looking for Assembly Speaker KG Bopaiah. Only he was authorised to accept their resignation letters.

While Karandlaje had informed the Speaker in advance about the likelihood of resignations, Bopaiah simply disappeared, obviously to win time for the Shettar government. There were claims that Bopaiah was in his native village in the Coorg region or in Nepal or, as it appears, in Dubai. He is expected to return on 29 January. In that sense, Rajnath’s first crisis management operation has begun.

The new BJP president has some experience of Karnataka. Gadkari had used him and Jaitley as trouble-shooters when the corruption charges against Yeddyurappa had become untenable and the two emissaries from New Delhi had been tasked with getting the Karnataka strongman to quit as chief minister. Now, of course, the distance with Yeddyurappa may prove too wide to bridge.

The other state strongman who will have implications on Rajnath’s second term is Modi, just re-elected as chief minister of Gujarat. Rajnath had his differences with Modi in his earlier tenure but has mended ties of late. In 2012, he flagged off Modi’s Vivekananda Yatra. While Rajnath is now running the party organisation and commands the bureaucracy at 11 Ashoka Road, the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, Modi is expected to head the campaign committee for the 2014 polls and emerge as the face of the election.

The dynamic between the two — with the RSS banking on Rajnath to present a united front but also keep Modi’s personality and individualism within the framework of group identity — could determine the BJP’s prospects in the general election. That apart, Rajnath is expected to sort out differences in Rajasthan between Vasundhara Raje, the former chief minister, and a cabal of Sangh loyalists who do not want her to be nominated chief ministerial candidate in the run up to the November state election. How he resolves this, along with the composition of his team of officebearers, will give an early indication of his plans.

Rajnath Singh will be mindful that this is his last chance as well. As party president, he led the party to defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. He wasn’t to blame on his own. That verdict was in large measure a rejection of Advani, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee. Even so, Rajnath would not want to carry the can for a second successive defeat in 2014. That remains his greatest fear. It could also become his greatest motivation.

With inputs from Prakhar Jain

Rana Ayyub is Senior Editor with Tehelka.

G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.