As Bad as the Congress

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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At a time when it should have been making political capital of the UPA government’s woes, why is the BJP just tripping all over itself?

A 12 per cent hike in petrol prices (approximately eight rupees) cleared by a tottering government should have come as a big boost to an opposition party on the eve of its biggest conclave. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has perfected the art of frittering away opportunities, began its national executive meeting in Mumbai last week fighting yet another series of crises in a manner that is quintessentially its own.

As the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government—which the BJP’s former president M Venkaiah Naidu sarcastically described as the “United Paralytic Alliance” on the eve of the meeting—limped across the three-year milestone, the BJP should have been finessing plans to gain from the mounting discomfort and growing unpopularity of the government and the Congress party. Instead, a few hours after Naidu made scathing remarks about the UPA “taking one step forward and three steps back,” the statement seemed to best reflect the state of his own party.

As the party brass (minus LK Advani, who was still in New Delhi) met in Mumbai, they were faced with a new crisis: an MP from Gujarat, also a member of the party’s national executive, conveyed to the leadership that Chief  Minister Narendra Modi would once again be staying away from the meeting. In fact, this time, the Gujarat MP conveyed to the party president, it wouldn’t be just Modi but the entire Gujarat state unit. Modi and his team, he threatened on behalf of the Gujarat Chief  Minister, would boycott all future national executive meetings as well unless RSS pracharak (full-time volunteer) Sanjay Joshi was removed from the body. Senior party leaders weighed their options and gave in to Modi’s threat. They established contact with the RSS leadership, which cleared Joshi’s removal from the national executive. This was duly conveyed to Joshi. He resigned. The party tried to keep a straight face. “Sanjay Joshi has submitted his resignation to the president. He has said he does not want the party to be in any controversy,” BJP general secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad told the media.

Modi had stayed away from the previous national executive meeting in New Delhi, held in September-October last year. The lame excuse the party offered for his absence then was that Modi does not leave the seat of his Navratri fasts, which happened to coincide with the meet last year. But Modi’s differences with party president Nitin Gadkari were no secret, and even before observers could dismiss the Navratri fast excuse for what it was, murmurs rose from within the party on how Modi was playing rebel. This was last year, yet the party let Modi’s anger simmer till the crisis grew large enough to dwarf the party.

Modi did not turn up to campaign for the party in the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year because Gadkari had put Joshi in charge of the poll campaign. Joshi, at one point Modi’s confidant, was brought back into the party by Gadkari. When he was ejected from the party in 2005 over a sex CD controversy, he was general secretary (organisation)—a position in the BJP traditionally held by an RSS pracharak to ensure that the party’s umbilical connection with its ideological parent is always intact. Ironically, the CD had surfaced in Mumbai, at the party’s silver jubilee celebrations.

Modi and Joshi go back a long way and so does their rivalry. The two worked together in Gujarat in the mid-1990s until Shankersinh Vaghela, the former state chieftan of the BJP (who later joined the Congress), shunted Modi out of Gujarat and appointed Joshi state general secretary of the BJP. Joshi opposed Modi’s return to the state in 1998. After Modi became chief minister, he ensured that Joshi was kept out of the state. Now Modi,

in using all his might to keep Joshi in check, has emerged bigger than the party. On 24 May, the first day of the national executive meeting, he scheduled a visit to Udaipur, ostensibly for a function hosted by the Maharana Pratap Foundation but in fact just to let the party know who was really calling the shots. The programme was sufficiently publicised to let the media and the party brass know that Modi couldn’t care less for a party meeting if the party wasn’t ready to bow to his diktat.


Modi flew out of Udaipur only after news of Joshi’s resignation was conveyed to him. It was 5 pm, the day’s deliberations nearly over, when Modi casually walked into the YB Chavan Centre at Nariman Point, the venue of the national executive meet. Amid hoarse chants of “Dekho dekho kaun aya, Hindustan ka sher aya” (Look who’s here. It’s the lion of India.),” Modi took a good five minutes or more to walk the 30-odd metres from his car to the entrance of the convention centre. He posed imperiously for the cameras before the mammoth wall hanging of Bharat Mata and waved to the crowds like a hero come home before finally entering the centre. His body language was of a man who had not just won but humiliated his opponent. The vanquished in this case was his own party. Later, at a rally in the Keeda Kamgar maidan in Parel, part of Mumbai’s famous mill area, Modi drew repeated comparisons between himself and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“At the Prime Minister’s celebration for three years of UPA 2, Manmohan Singh has issued a 120 page report card. One of the achievements listed is that agricultural growth has gone up from 2.25 per cent to 3.25 per cent. For the past 10 years, agriculture in Gujarat has been growing at 11 per cent. Pradhan Mantriji, this is the same Gujarat that once faced droughts seven years out of every 10,” he announced, adding for good measure that the UPA government was one without “neta, neeti aur saaf niyat (leadership, policies and good intentions).” The rupee’s recent plunge vis-à-vis the dollar, Modi announced, “is not for simple economic reasons. There is a deep-rooted conspiracy behind it.” The man’s politics has long fed off conspiracy theories and demonising others. He repeatedly referred to the UPA government as the “Delhi’s Sultanate,” to loud cheers from the crowd.

LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, stayed away from the rally, both citing other engagements, but it seemed to matter little to Modi. “I have to leave Mumbai early to be in Ghaziabad tomorrow morning,” Swaraj said, a few hours before the rally. But it is no secret that Modi’s rise has always troubled Swaraj, who like Advani’s other protégés—Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and Venkaiah Naidu—has always fancied her chances of being at the top after Advani’s time. The symbolic win over the BJP’s reluctance to acknowledge that Modi is today its tallest leader has only added to his confidence. Modi too has long fancied himself as the next prime minister. The party has neither denied nor declared it, playing the same old wait-and-watch game it did with LK Advani after the 2004 Lok Sabha loss. “Mr Modi’s record in governance is commendable but as for the party’s prime ministerial candidate, the BJP will take a decision at the right time,” Prasad repeated for the umpteenth time.

In 2009, the party backed Advani as its prime ministerial candidate reluctantly and paid a heavy price for it. The party’s slide only added to the infighting in its top leadership, and as a result the RSS was able to install Nitin Gadkari, a political lightweight, as BJP president. Party insiders say the RSS gave in too easily to Modi’s demand for Joshi’s ouster even though Joshi enjoys the confidence of the RSS. This, they reason, is to ensure that Gadkari remains in the saddle, something the RSS would like. The party’s constitution did not allow for a second consecutive term for the party president. But, in the current national executive, Article 21 of the BJP’s constitution was amended by voice vote to allow the BJP president to enjoy two consecutive terms. With this obstacle crossed, Gadkari, who would have ended his presidential term at the end of this year, can now be president till 2015. Bowing to Modi may be a quid pro quo deal to pave the way for Gadkari’s second term, but it has cost the party dear in more than one way. Apart from the fact that Modi has managed to project himself as larger than the party, Gadkari has been forced down the throats of the party’s top leaders, yet again, by the RSS.

It is unlikely that the party will resolve its internal problems caused by personal ambitions anytime soon. To compound its problems, Gadkari too nurtures prime ministerial ambitions. The bariatric surgery last year has helped him lose 14 kg so far, sources say. He still weighs over a hundred kilos and is working both on his health and on nurturing Nagpur as his constituency to contest the next Lok Sabha election. After Joshi’s ouster from the national executive, Gadkari has put him in charge of Nagpur.

“Modi has emerged bigger than the party itself in this national executive and if he wins the assembly elections in Gujarat later this year, which the party is confident he will, it would pave the way for his declaration as the party’s PM candidate. At least there will be tremendous pressure to do so,” says a member of the  BJP national executive. That should, for the BJP, solve the problem of finding a leader for the next election. But only on the face of it. Modi is no Vajpayee. His acceptability among allies is low. The BJP knows that it cannot form a government on its own. It will have to do so as the NDA. With the exception of the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party cannot take for granted any other BJP ally’s support for Modi. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has no love lost for Modi and doggedly kept him away from the Bihar poll campaign, will by no means allow him to be Prime Minister, unless the BJP’s electoral score stretches to a point where Kumar’s support itself becomes irrelevant.

A recent analysis by GVL Narasimha Rao, a psephologist and member of the BJP’s Electoral Reforms Committee, says Modi is “by far the most popular leader of the country today.” The analysis, circulated widely within the party, shows the Congress sliding but the BJP not really gaining enough from the slide. This is a concern that even Advani voiced while concluding the national executive meeting. “How do we convince the people that we are a credible alternative to the Congress?” he asked of the party’s office-bearers at the meet. Jaitley too spoke of preparing the BJP “to be a cohesive and ethical party, prepared to give direction to the nation,” but cautioned: “We must avoid any kind of contradictory voices emerging from within.”