Who pushed Rajnath to the wall?

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Fandangle in the family Arun Jaitley (right) has the most to gain if Rajnath Singh is diminished, Photo: Tehelka Archives
Fandangle in the family Arun Jaitley (right) has the most to gain if Rajnath Singh is diminished, Photo: Tehelka Archives

What began as a rumour in the beginning has now assumed serious overtones. Is there a deliberate attempt by influential insiders in the saffron camp to pigeonhole Home Minister Rajnath Singh? It is a mystery that refuses to resolve even after some of the dramatis personae behind it have tried to clear the air to suggest that all is well. Just who in the rarified world of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) leaked the contents of the reported mouthful that Prime Minister Narendra Modi reserved for Rajnath’s son Pankaj about the latter getting a bribe running into lakhs for fixing a bureaucratic post? The granite walls of the PMO will not let out the secret, even as a frenzied buzz locates the source of the leak from top bureaucrats attached to the high office down to Rajnath’s own Cabinet colleagues.

That the PMO had to go to unprecedented lengths to deny that there was anything amiss indicates the seriousness of the leak’s after-effects.

In normal circumstances, no clarifications of this kind are made and none are expected. The fact that such a denial was made suggests the explosive potential of the leak.

Both the timing and the content of the ruling establishment’s raging scuffle could not have come at a less propitious time for the home minister and his son. Uttar Pradesh is all set for crucial bypolls and Pankaj was, in fact, being considered for one of the seats, possibly from Lucknow. Then came the scandal, followed by the reported stern riposte by Modi. The impact will have a profound bearing on the balance of forces within the ruling caucus.

Until Amit Shah burst on the scene and walked away with all the credit for the BJP’s stupendous showing in the Lok Sabha polls, Rajnath was the most important BJP leader in the state. But Shah came, and within days, took complete charge of everything from campaign strategy to ticket distribution. And by the time the results were in, he had effectively ensured that he called the shots.

While Rajnath was busy fighting his own election, some middle-level BJP leaders in the state were prepared to play a completely secondary role to Shah. The fact that the BJP had a huge win has rewritten the script inside the party, with Shah having the predominant say in the affairs of Uttar Pradesh.

It is in this backdrop that the scandal concerning Pankaj, where he has been accused of accepting money to arrange a bureaucratic posting, erupted. The allegation has had a cascading effect, with Pankaj being kept away from the bypolls even as the candidates projected by other state unit leaders have got a look in.

While the bypolls thus assume additional significance, the picture at the establishment’s highest echelons has become more confusing. Is Rajnath actually the No. 2 in the Union Cabinet or is Arun Jaitley, who holds a plethora of key charges, the chosen one? When Modi left for his Japan trip, did he leave a note with his Cabinet secretary (as is the usual practice) that in case of an emergency in his absence, his next in command would chair a meeting of the Union Cabinet? And just who is the No. 2 in the Cabinet? Strictly in terms of seniority, say insiders, it should be Rajnath. But have recent developments had an impact, leading to his being upstaged by Jaitley?

While there is no definite answer to this question, the origin of the leak continues to be the subject of intense speculation. The PMO under Modi has been patterned on the so-called Gujarat model with the pm centralising all power; it has, in fact, been described as the extension of the Gandhinagar model to the Centre. Among the carefully chosen bureaucrats who matter in the PMO, two are supposed to be wielding tremendous clout: Principal Secretary Nripendra Mishra, who is a retired ias officer from the 1967 batch, and Pramod Kumar Mishra from Odisha. Did the alleged leak about Modi’s outburst against Pankaj originate from bureaucratic circles or was it the handiwork of someone in the Cabinet who knew about it? Or were there some big guns in the saffron brigade out to stymie the home minister?

On the face of it, having already sidelined veterans such as LK Advani and MM Joshi and getting Shah as the party president, Modi has made it unmistakably clear as to who is actually calling the shots. And if another veteran like Rajnath happens to be caught in a cleft and gets into trouble, it would mean still greater control for Modi.

Of course, it wasn’t like this too long ago. Modi and Rajnath were placed on a more equal footing during the early years of the nda; in fact, Rajnath has had the distinction of being the party chief twice, apart from being Uttar Pradesh chief minister, while Modi, during much of this time, was cocooned in Gujarat, where he had a long tryst with controversy in the wake of the 2002 riots and was under a cloud for a long time. While it is true that Rajnath’s first term as party chief ended in an unceremonious manner, he also had his proverbial purple patch in the party and outside.

In usual circumstances, even the scandal involving his son could arguably have been more evenhandedly handled for it not to become the scandal that it has. Much to the home minister’s horror, not only has it come into the public domain but, in fact, has led to a situation where the father seems to have been pushed to the defensive following the son’s alleged shenanigans.

Who gains if Rajnath is pushed to the wall? The obvious answer would be Jaitley, who has key portfolios like defence and finance under his belt, despite having failed to win a Lok Sabha seat. Jaitley will most likely continue as the finance minister after the pm appoints a full-fledged defence minister.

As for Rajnath, there may be no immediate danger to his ministerial berth, but in view of what has been going on, it could mean a steady diminution in his stature in the long term — a prospect unlikely to please him. As it is, the ‘famous’ gang of four that led the BJP’s New Delhi brigade before Modi’s ascension is a thing of the past, and if the bypoll results in UP and the Assembly election results in the key states of Maharashtra and Haryana go in the BJP’s favour, the supremacy of the Modi-Shah duo will be unassailable.

Thus, what began some months ago as a multi-layered anointment of Modi at the saffron brigade’s helm has at one level come full circle. At another level, with Shah holding the fort in the party and Modi in the prime ministerial chair, the picture at the top becomes clearer still. In the circumstances, the Modi-Shah combine has all the power to micromanage developments much as they please.

The home ministry under Rajnath may be a key slot, but insiders have it that his understudy mos Kiren Rijiju is also gaining in importance as far as the day-to-day functioning of the ministry is concerned. Rajnath has undoubted seniority and experience in his favour, but straws in the wind suggest that the manner in which the scandal involving his son has unfolded has perhaps diminished his clout, which in usual circumstances should have been his for keeps.

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