Just before the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Council and National Executive met at the end of September in Surajkund on the periphery of Delhi—that seat of power that has eluded the party since 2004—the party’s number of declared prime ministerial probables stood at six. The council’s thumbs-up to a second term for Nitin Gadkari as party president and the goings-on may have only added to the count. At least two more may now be on the list: Gadkari himself and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Though Gadkari was never not in the race, a second term as president bumps up his chances. The lavish praise he heaped on Chouhan’s leadership of Madhya Pradesh in his speech may be his way of offsetting the attention Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been drawing of late as a potential PM. It is also a signal that the party’s central leadership is willing to indulge one regional satrap to neutralise another.
For quite some time, Chouhan has been projecting himself as a dark horse in the PM’s race. His propaganda machinery—like Modi’s—has been working on the national media and churning out statistics that portray him as a better administrator than Modi. Sample these statistics from an email of 3 August, promising both a meeting with Chouhan and access to the state’s villages to showcase its ‘development’ story: ‘The [MP] government has also launched many schemes in social sectors and enacted the public service guarantee act, which received wide accolades and conferred with the UN award as well… MP’s growth rate for the year 2011-12 has been an impressive 11.98%, agricultural growth has been around 18%, the record wheat production made MP the second largest wheat producer after Punjab and dairy sector recorded growth of around 22%.’ It didn’t escape notice that Gadkari used identical words to praise Chouhan.
In a TV interview to Headlines Today in mid-August, Gadkari had told his interviewer Rahul Kanwal: “Modi is one of six PM candidates of the BJP along with Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and MM Joshi. No decision has been taken yet.” He was responding to the sustained projection of Modi as the party’s candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. For long now, the party has maintained a public stance that it has several leaders capable of leading its electoral charge in 2014. But ever since the BJP lost the 2004 general election, the personal ambitions of individual leaders have appeared to wreak havoc on the party’s fortunes, leaving its cadres confused and leadership worried. Asked for a list of the party’s probable candidates for the next Lok Sabha, a party spokesperson and MP quipped mockingly, “Why can’t I be on the list too?”
The party may never have declared it, but that has never stopped Modi from tomtomming himself as the BJP’s only bet for prime ministership in 2014. Even now, in his campaign for re-election in Gujarat, Modi appears to have the Centre in focus for attack. He seems particularly keen to take on Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, rather than rivals in the state’s electoral arena.
Gadkari, in the meantime, has been playing his candidacy down. In the same TV interview, his bariatric surgery-aided weight loss and Lok Sabha preparations from Nagpur notwithstanding, he said his own name was not on the list. But he has no need of playing himself up. By the end of the BJP’s Surajkund meet, signals of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) were clear to everyone. It was on the strength of RSS backing that Gadkari had all but secured himself a second consecutive term as BJP chief, to allow which the party constitution had to be amended. This had never happened before, as past party presidents will attest. The upshot is that Gadkari will be the party’s top office holder when the next Lok Sabha polls are held, which would make him a natural contender for the PM’s position in case of a BJP/NDA victory.
So, while the Congress struggles to get its long-declared PM probable for 2014, Rahul Gandhi, to actually assume leadership, the BJP has enough candidates keen on prime ministership to start an IPL team. Only, this team would be known best for its members’ knack of negating one another’s strengths, often at the cost of the party. The result, even after three years of non-performance, poor governance and widespread corruption by the Congress-led UPA alliance, is that the principal opposition party has not been able to put itself on a clear trajectory to victory. Though this is by now a well acknowledged cause of anxiety within the BJP, it has shown no urgency in dealing with the problem. Instead, session after session of Parliament and meeting after meeting of the party’s top brass are spent in firefighting, assuaging bruised egos or simply addressing the whims of one leader or the other.
In the last meeting of the BJP’s National Executive at Mumbai, both LK Advani and Gadkari groaned loudly about the party’s inability to convert the UPA’s decline in popularity to its advantage. Yet, that session will be remembered for how Modi managed to show the BJP’s central leadership that he had a political stature higher than the rest of the party’s. Modi, refusing at first to attend the meeting, conveyed a threat to boycott all such future meetings till his bete noire Sanjay Joshi was shown the door. Gadkari, preoccupied by his effort to have the party constitution amended in his own favour, willingly sacrificed his aide Joshi even though it left others visibly upset. Advani and Swaraj responded by skipping the public rally at the end of the meet. And the party’s former Chief Minister of Karnataka BS Yeddyurappa responded with a tantrum of his own, forcing the central leadership to switch CMs in the state (Sadananda Gowda’s taking over was in line with Yeddyurappa’s caste calculations). Despite this, Yeddyurappa remains unsatisfied and has been acting up against the BJP’s central leadership. He was absent at the Surajkund meet, and has hinted that he is ready to float his own party in Karnataka.
In sum, infighting within the BJP is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Back in 2009, it was this that elevated Gadkari, a non-player on the national scene, to the party’s top post in the first place. In a bid to quell the infighting, the RSS installed one of its own men as president and ordered everyone else to get back to work. And now he has a second term.
If the next general election sees a repeat of August 2009—when RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat stepped in and sat down with Advani, Swaraj, Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar, MM Joshi et al to stop their bickering and have them accept a political lightweight like Gadkari as president—the BJP’s infighting will again cast a shadow on its electoral prospects. Teams that can’t play together tend to lose together. The party’s leaders don’t seem to have learnt that lesson. Perhaps they are too busy playing petty inner-party politics—in the expectation that the electorate will reward them for it nonetheless.