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The ace up BJP's sleeve


By throwing their weight behind Narendra Modi, the saffron brotherhood gambles big time on Hindutva's hard face. Ranjit Bhushan reports
RANJIT BHUSHAN | Issue Dated: June 23, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Narendra Modi | 2014 Lok Sabha polls | PM candidate | BJP | NDA |

It was meant to be a coronation to beat all coronations. The living symbol of saffron success and rising star on the political firmament Narendra Modi was finally chosen poll mascot for the 2014 General Elections by the BJP at their national executive.

Amidst the beating of drums, blowing of conch shells and a generous spread of the feel good factor, it appeared that Modi had finally arrived to do what was expected of him – sweep the next General Elections and knock the stuffing out of all who come in the way.

But clearly the saffron camp had not done their homework well. While senior BJP leaders fell over each other to sing paeans to their new poster boy, they had not reckoned with their party’s original strongman LK Advani.
Modi’s anointment as head of the party election campaign was not even 24 hours old when Advani’s major domo Deepak Chopra made his way to the office of BJP president Rajnath Singh on 30 Ashok Road and handed him a letter.

The contents of the letter were explosive. The former deputy Prime Minister informed his party president that he was quitting party posts because BJP leaders were “now concerned with their personal agendas.’’

The letter went on: “for some time I have been finding difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going. I no longer have the feeling that this is the same idealistic party created by Dr Mookerjee, Pandit Deendayalji, Nanaji and Vajpayeeji whose sole concern was the country and its people.’’

That this daring move was aimed at dimming the luster of Modi’s likely projection as prime minister, would be a gross understatement. It certainly stunned the saffron brotherhood. BJP leaders went into a huddle trying to figure out how best to retrieve the situation.

The BJP veteran’s pique was fired by his opposition to Modi’s elevation at the Goa national executive; insiders also say that he was upset when his name did not come up even once during the course of several rousing speeches made that day.

Top leaders went into a damage control exercise. Rajya Sabha MP Arun Jaitley said that “Advani’s guidance is vital at this crucial hour. All of us, including Narendra Modi, have sat at his feet learning the basics of politics.''
Since then, a flurry of activity at Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence had almost all top leaders – with the exception of Modi - visiting him and requesting him to rethink his decision in the best interests of the party. “I am sure he will see our point,’’ Advani loyalist Venkiah Naidu told this magazine.

And that is the way it turned out to be. Within the next 24 hours, the veteran Jan Sangh leader had been ‘persuaded’ both by his comrades and parent body RSS to withdraw his resignation, a tribute to the rising influence of Modi in the BJP.

But if Advani’s move had stumped the others, Modi remained unfazed. He went about his day as usual, inaugurating various projects in Gujarat, even as the media debated what lay in store next. Because in anointing Modi, the saffron combine did what many thought was the obvious thing to do: play its most potent card in an attempt to dislodge the two-term UPA government.  “Narendra Modi remains our trump card. The best thing that has happened is that our cadres are galvanized. For a political party to win, that remains the single-most important consideration,’’ BJP MP and journalist Chandan Mitra said.

The Marriott Hotel in Goa where the national executive held their meeting June 9, was awash with a flood of saffron, the site resembling a happy marriage occasion with festoons and flowers and an atmosphere which belied the mere elevation of the Gujarat strongman to the position of BJP’s poll campaign committee – to a casual visitor it could well have resembled Modi’s appointment as the country’s prime minister.

In the weeks running up to the BJP national executive meeting, there were ample hints that Modi was going to be the chosen man, the only question at stake being the timing of such an announcement. That problem too seemed to have taken care of itself; the Bihar Lok Sabha bye-poll result in Maharajganj where Modi’s rival Nitish Kumar had to eat crow when BJP cadres refused to help out in the constituency was ample sign for the main opposition party to bite the bullet. Any misgivings about how Nitish and BJP ally JD (U) could behave in the eventuality of Modi’s elevation appears to have dissipated – until Advani’s resignation.

Though the party stopped short of declaring Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, there were ample indications that defacto, he had emerged as the BJP’s most important leader. Evidence of that came when party president Rajnath Singh, in a break from tradition, did not deliver the final address, leaving it to Modi to do the honours. “After this decision, there is no ambiguity as to whose leadership we are going to contest the next elections,’’ BJP general secretary Dharmendra Pradhan told this magazine. That was the main point of the two-day national executive meeting as well.

To be sure, Modi’s elevation was no easy task – not everybody in the saffron combine felt as euphoric about the Gujarat chief minister as his supporters did. The biggest stumbling block to Modi came from former mentor Advani, the man credited with turning the party around in the 1980s and 1990s – in electoral terms it meant that the BJP had jumped from 2 Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 182 in 1999.

Advani’s move made Modi’s position quite tenuous, particularly after the Gujarat Chief Minister had tweeted a day before saying he had Advani’s blessing for the new post. It has invited the obvious question: if Modi cannot take his party along, where was the question of taking the country together?

In his ‘acceptance speech’, a visibly thrilled Modi launched a broadside against the UPA government saying that the country needed to get rid of the Congress. “Our aim should not be change of government for the sake of power but to bring about a change in the decision-making process of the country,’’ he thundered to a crowd comprising top BJP leaders and its cadres.

In arriving at the Modi decision, there were ample indications that the BJP’s parent body RSS had a strong and decisive role to play. According to insiders, the growing medley of anti-Modi and pro-Advani voices from the BJP camp had upset the saffron leadership in Nagpur and it took the express orders from the RSS’s top brass to quell any dissent to Modi’s name. Later, that diktat applied to Advani as well.

There is little doubt that the Gujarat Chief Minister's appointment appears to have given the leg up to his cadres. Party workers from Patna to Thiruvananthpuram and from Kolkata to Jaipur, burst crackers, distributed sweets and sang victory songs – as if elections which are a good year away had already been won.

Support for Modi came from all saffron quarters, including those who have been thrown out from the fold, like former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who told reporters in Bangalore that the decision was long delayed. “Had this been done earlier, results of assembly elections would have been different,’’ a sulking Yeddyurappa said. Karnataka BJP chief Prahlad Joshi told reporters that “Modi is the charisma which will help the win elections.’’

From elsewhere, the responses were similar and quite allegorical. Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, known to be close to Advani, denied outright that he was opposed to Modi. Saying he was the first to back the Gujarat Chief Minister, Sinha said Modi’s elevation had become necessary because “the cadres wanted it, the people wanted it. He has no match in the Congress party or elsewhere.’’

Among those seen congratulating and hugging Modi included important BJP chief ministers, Raman Singh and Sheoraj Singh Chauhan of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh respectively – both of whom have done successful tenures in their own right and are considered by some to be alternatives for Modi should the saffron leadership decide to go in for a softer or moderate face as poll campaign in charge instead of the bearded and stern visage of the Gujarat strongman.

Ultimately it did not come down to that. The RSS and the top BJP leadership after months of dithering came to the conclusion that putting Modi – whose popularity in Gujarat is growing with each successive poll result – be put up front without any hesitation. The decision is clear: they are willing to bet on Modi’s hard line to see them through and if some bleeding hearts come in the way, then just too bad. ``His face sells,'' says one BJP leader.

Critics of the BJP are keen to point out that traditionally, the electorate in India likes to see a moderate face and that India is a moderate country which prefers middle-of-the-road politicians as opposed to hardliners. They quote the example of Advani who built the party from scratch in the 1980s, only to be sidelined in favour of Atal Bihari Vajpayee when it came to forming a government a decade or so later. Vajpayee was seen as a much more liberal saffron face instead of Advani and hence got the nod. They say it could well happen again - notwithstanding the Modi hoopla.

While there is little doubt that Modi has managed to evoke the ‘feel good’ factor among the country’s youth yearning for a makeover of India’s soft power status into a global powerhouse, the biggest challenge before him is to keep the party united. At the moment, the BJP appears to be a divided house and leaders are not above airing their views whenever they deem it fit.

Modi’s own style of operation too may not go down well with everyone – the RSS included. BJP leaders are not unaware of his marginalising key Sangh functionaries in Gujarat, including VHP hardliners, on his way to the top.

His fuller impact is likely to be felt later this year when Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram go to polls. He is certainly going to be under the scanner, his every election speech and its nuances scrutinized and if the results do not favour BJP, there is a good chance that dissidence in the party may begin to rear its head, this time strongly. The charismatic Gujarat strongman’s real test will then have just begun.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017