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For whom the division bell tolls
Modi as BJP's PM candidate is far from a done deal. Not only are his opponents rallying behind Advani, there is also the dark horse, Chauhan, to contend with.
It was the BJP's Delhi chief, Vijay Goel, who let the cat out of the bag that the bitter leadership struggle corroding the main opposition party is far from over. Just when it seemed that the matter had been settled and Narendra Modi was but one step away from donning the coveted mantle as the party's prime ministerial candidate in the next Lok Sabha polls, Goel dropped his bombshell. "The next government at the centre will be formed under the leadership of L K Advani and nobody else, " he declared at a function in the Capital to mark the BJP's foundation day on April 6.
The fact that both party president Rajnath Singh and Advani were sitting on the dais when he spoke only fuelled speculation that Goel had been set up to put a spoke in the Modi juggernaut. His hasty retraction a short while later did not stop the tongues from wagging. It was ambiguous and did not ring true. Modi's cheerleaders in the BJP dismissed Goel as too inconsequential a person to be taken seriously. Yet, the next day, Rajya Sabha MP Shatrughan Sinha stirred the pot again with a demand for Advani to lead the 2014 poll campaign.
With so much dissonance, can the BJP still pretend that all's well in the party? As Modi makes an overly eager pitch to lead his party's poll campaign, the naysayers are rearing their heads. And there seem to be enough of them emerging from the woodwork to cast doubts on the widespread impression that Modi is unstoppable. Some, like L K Advani, are almost openly lobbying against him. Others are opposing him more discreetly, using motor mouths like Shatrughan Sinha to do the talking for them.
There are two noticeable trends that tell us that the leadership issue is far from settled and is likely to remain open till the very end, that is, till polls are announced. One is the emergence of the party patriarch, L K Advani, as the pivot of a dissident camp opposed to Modi. The other is the quiet but steady buildup of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as a rival contender. The fact that he too is poised to score a hat trick, if he wins the MP state elections later this year, certainly takes some of the sheen away from Modi's claim to being the only BJP chief minister to win three successive elections.
It is interesting that Chauhan, otherwise a low profile, diffident kind of person, has been seeking publicity recently. A spate of television interviews, including one to a prominent English news channel, turned the spotlight on him. And the fact that MP recently topped the national growth chart with an impressive 11. 8 per cent made people sit up and take note of his achievements and governance record.
Significantly, Chauhan was quite dismissive of the ongoing PM battle in the party, saying that it makes a joke of the BJP. "This prime minister or that prime minister, we cannot damage our party's image by giving such statements, " he said in one of his TV interviews. He also took a swipe at Modi with a self-deprecatory remark. "I don't have that good a personality. I keep a low profile. I enjoy delivering my duties, " he said in reply to a question about the lack of personality cult around him, unlike the one thriving around Modi.
Chauhan's remarks were as much directed against Modi as against Advani who has also thrown his hat in the ring as a PM candidate. The MP chief minister is known to be a blue-eyed boy of the RSS and many in the BJP believe that he is the second string in Nagpur's bow, to be used if Modi falls on his face in the run-up to the polls. Many in the BJP believe that Chauhan would not have embarked on a publicity binge without clearance from the Sangh bosses.
Shrewd politician that he is, Advani has picked up on the Sangh's indecision and has been privately making a strong pitch for Chauhan. He failed to get the MP CM included in the party's apex decision making body, the parliamentary board which Rajnath Singh reconstituted recently. But that has not stopped him from pushing Chauhan at every possible forum.
Modi's camp followers have long wanted Advani to hang up his boots and fade away. But the patriarch refuses to listen. And as evident from the compromises Rajnath Singh made to accommodate some of Advani's loyalists in his new team, the elder leader still packs a punch. He is today the most prominent dissident leader in the party. He has become a rallying point for anyone who has a bone to pick with the present leadership. And the surest way to get his backing is to demand that he lead the 2014 election campaign for the BJP.
Aggrieved leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and others are in regular contact with Advani. And even if he can't have his way all the time, he has enough damage potential to make him a formidable player still. The most notable demonstration of his continuing clout is the manner in which he lobbied to scuttle a second term as party president for Nitin Gadkari.
The battle lines are being drawn and one by one, leaders are taking sides. Arun Jaitley has allied himself quite firmly with Modi while Sushma Swaraj remains loyal to Advani although she has her independent moments. It threatens to be a fight to the finish for control of the party. Ironically, while the others slug it out, Rajnath Singh has cleverly positioned himself as the arbiter between the different camps. His balancing act while making his team of office bearers shows that he is playing all sides and is committed to none. Maybe he will have the last laugh.
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