RSS looks to cut Modi to size. And fix the BJP’s other problems

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By Rana Ayyub

New equations Swaraj, Advani and Gadkari were a picture of unity at the meet
New equations Swaraj, Advani and Gadkari were a picture of unity at the meet
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

IN THE never-ending test match that is the BJP’s internal politics, is the RSS the third umpire or the 12th man? As the countdown begins towards the Uttar Pradesh election in about six months — in turn, it will inaugurate a hectic, two-year electoral schedule, culminating in the 2014 General Election — the RSS brass in Nagpur has junked the idea of non-interference in the BJP’s day-to-day affairs. A much more interventionist Sangh is likely to seek to influence the choice of personalities the party will project.

Missing in action Modi’s decision to skip the national meet has ruffled feathers
Missing in action Modi’s decision to skip the national meet has ruffled feathers

To some degree, the BJP has asked for it. The party’s inability to sort out its internal problems, present a united face and capitalise on the UPA government’s shortcomings have given the so-called purists in the RSS a chance to hit back. In addition, the factionalism in the BJP is mirrored by the factionalism in the Sangh and this has compounded the confusion.

Indeed, the RSS now finds itself bang in the middle of the LK Advani-Narendra Modi tussle in the party. It is also trying to arbitrate other disputes between other BJP leaders. This has led to bizarre, even comical situations.

This past week, Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was addressing the media and mocking the ‘truce’ between Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram. At exactly the same time, BJP President Nitin Gadkari, handpicked by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, was answering questions of journalists for the first time since his bariatric surgery. Just before he began, Gadkari made a ‘request’ to gathered mediapersons: Please don’t ask any uncomfortable questions on infighting.

Gadkari’s immediate reference was to the Advani-Modi issue. Modi stayed away from the BJP’s two-day national executive meet in New Delhi. On his part, Advani did not visit the Somnath temple on 25 September — as he has done almost every year since 1990, to mark the anniversary of the beginning of his Ram rath yatra that year — and has announced he will not be starting his upcoming anti-corruption yatra from Gujarat but from Bihar.

This bickering has left Bhagwat and the RSS establishment exasperated. The RSS is not keen to project Advani as prime ministerial candidate in 2014. In fact, a section of the Sangh wants both Advani (who turns 84 in November) and Murli Manohar Joshi (77) to step down from electoral politics. This was more or less conveyed to Advani when he met Bhagwat in Nagpur a few weeks ago. However, the RSS is conscious of Advani’s standing in the party and the broader Sangh family. It wants him to play the role of elder statesman and certainly doesn’t want him slighted by the 50- and 60-somethings in the party.

If the RSS was upset with Modi for snubbing Advani and not turning up at the national executive, there was a context to it.

The Sangh feels Modi is not suitably deferential to Gadkari, a comparatively junior politician whom Modi once saw as his protégé. As a senior RSS functionary put it, “He thinks he’s so big that he didn’t even choose to tell Gadkari about his plan to not attend the national executive. This when Gadkari personally invited him! Gadkari has supported both Jaitley and Modi against Sushma Swaraj.”

While Modi claimed he couldn’t make it to New Delhi because of his Navratra fast, he was also upset that the RSS had pushed Sanjay Joshi back into the BJP and given him charge of the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. Joshi and Modi are old enemies. Joshi was ousted as BJP organising secretary in the winter of 2005 when a sex tape appeared allegedly showing him in a compromising position with a woman. This was heresy within the Sangh, as Joshi is a pracharak and sworn to celibacy.

To counter Modi, the RSS has directed Gadkari to support the Advani yatra and also promised to mobilise Parivar outfits

THE FACTION of the Sangh Joshi is aligned with blamed Modi for the sex tape and the adverse publicity and has been itching to get back. After a suitable cooling off period, Joshi began making attempts about a year ago to be rehabilitated in the BJP. Joshi has been urging Bhagwat as well as RSS general secretary Suresh ‘Bhaiyya’ Joshi to help him back into the BJP. In recent months, Gadkari succumbed and more or less indicated Sanjay Joshi would return with honour. This earned him Modi’s wrath.

In a meeting in Nagpur shortly before Advani’s arrival at the RSS headquarters, Bhagwat asked Gadkari to give Joshi a decisive role in the selection of candidates in Uttar Pradesh. Acting shrewdly, Joshi went out of his way to mend fences with Gadkari and with Advani, whom he had criticised in the past. In this manner, he succeeded in winning over two former allies of Modi, both of them angry with the Gujarat strongman in the short run at least.

Modi’s decision to boycott the national executive was meant as a protest against Joshi’s ascension. Ironically, it only strengthened the latter. Modi’s open defiance and the perception that he has created a personality cult in Gujarat have confirmed to the RSS that it needs to build a collective counterweight to him. Joshi, Advani and Gadkari are elements in this larger game being played out between the saffron brotherhood and its most charismatic as well as most controversial son.

The new equations were very visible at the national executive. Gadkari, Joshi and Uma Bharti, all backed by the RSS, made their presence felt. They were also the picture of bonhomie with Advani. “It was a mutual admiration society between Advani, Gadkari and Swaraj,” said a BJP leader.

While not agreeing with Advani’s implied suggestion that he should be the choice for prime minister, the RSS is certainly being lenient on him. It sees him as important to balance Modi’s clout. As such, the RSS has directed Gadkari to support the Advani yatra and also promised to mobilise other frontal organisations of the Sangh. Further, it has opened communication with Swaraj, seeing her as a viable alternative to Advani as well as Modi.

Other than personalities, there is also the question of political substance. The RSS has been upset that the BJP has not been able to put the UPA on the back foot on the corruption issue in the manner that it had expected. The RSS youth wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, campaigned for Anna Hazare at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad provided logistical support and food to the crowds gathered there. Yet the public adulation was for Hazare and the non-political India Against Corruption, not for the BJP. Why? The RSS has been wondering.

As a senior RSS leader told TEHELKA, the power struggle between Modi and Advani ensured the party could not effectively exploit the mass upsurge following Hazare’s fast. Advani sought to hijack the moment by going on his own yatra against corruption and promoting himself. Modi decided to undertake a three-day fast in Gandhinagar, forced BJP leaders to fly down and show solidarity and turned attention once more on the party’s internal fissures.

No wonder the RSS is miffed. Between now and 2014, it wants to ensure it is not taken by surprise again, at least not in the manner of Advani and Modi.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor, Mumbai with Tehelka.
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