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The BJP is in the throes of its worst crisis ever. While party president Nitin Gadkari is neckdeep in corruption charges, the simmering leadership question is again on fire.
The BJP failed to convince anyone, least of all its own rank and file, with last week's show of solidarity for beleaguered party president Nitin Gadkari. The fault lines reappeared with frightening speed as Gadkari's chief internal critic and party patriarch L K Advani boycotted the core committee meeting that supposedly "cleared" him of the corruption allegations swirling around him. And the next day, Rajya Sabha MP Ram Jethmalani, who had precipitated the latest round of trouble along with son Mahesh, let loose a fresh volley of criticism, calling the decision "a betrayal of the people" and once again demanding Gadkari's resignation.
The pathetic attempt to paper over the cracks in a splintered party only confirmed that the main opposition party is in the throes of its most serious crisis yet, matched only by the gravity of the problems on the other side of the political divide, in the ruling Congress party. If the latter is hobbled by an unending predicament over the anointment of heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, the BJP is crippled by a festering leadership struggle. At the very least, the battle to lead the party into the next general election has blunted its anti-corruption campaign against the Congress. At worst, it threatens to split the BJP wide open with rival claimants upping the ante for a decision here and now.
The suddenness with which the storm burst has surprised everyone in the party. Less than two months ago, after the BJP national council met at Surajkund to amend the party constitution, it seemed that a second term for Gadkari was a done deal. Then came Arvind Kejriwal and his expose of the nexus between Gadkari and the NCP in the multi-crore irrigation scam in Maharashtra. The BJP president was still trying to dodge Kejriwal's salvos when the ground under him exploded with revelations of financial irregularities revolving around his Purti group of companies. There were multiple questions about a web of shell companies, mysterious ownership patterns and fake addresses. Soon, the media was having Gadkari for breakfast and the Congress could not hide its glee that the corruption taint had enveloped the BJP as well. As if that served to lighten its own burden of scams.
While the immediate fallout of all this was to put the BJP on the back foot on the corruption issue, giving the Congress a breather from regular sniper fire from the main opposition, it didn't take long for matters to snowball internally. The simmering leadership question caught fire again as the contenders for Gadkari's job concluded that this was the right time to strike for two reasons. The incumbent was faced with a serious image problem and with political calculations veering around to the possibility of a 2013 election instead of 2014, the desire to settle the issue has never been more compelling.
The battle lines keep shifting but what is clear is that there are five main aspirants: L K Advani, Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh. What is also clear is that the decision will be taken, not by the BJP, but by the RSS which is increasingly emerging as the equivalent of the Congress party's "high command". In fact, a section of the BJP jokingly refers to Nagpur (where the RSS headquarters are located) as its 10 Janpath.
The crux of the problem lies here: in the tussle for control of the BJP between the apolitical monks who reside in Nagpur and those versed in the art of tackling the rough and tumble of politics in a parliamentary democracy. As long as the BJP, or its earlier avatar, the Jan Sangh, was a marginal political force, the RSS was content to exercise authority from a distance. This was also the era when BJP stalwarts like Vajpayee and Advani came into the political stream after a period of indoctrination in the RSS. There was a symbiotic relationship between the two organisations which both sides respected and honoured.
The equation changed drastically with the BJP's rise in the 1990s and the formation of the first BJP-led government at the centre. This coincided with the death of the older RSS leadership and the coming of a newer lot that was intensely political as well as ambitious. They included people like Rajju Bhaiyya, followed by K S Sudershan and now Mohan Rao Bhagwat. Sudershan and Bhagwat in particular were determined that the BJP should remain under the full control of the RSS and not develop political wings that would help it to chart an independent course. On one level, it was an ideological struggle, a fear that politics would "corrupt" the BJP and lead it astray from its RSS moorings. But on another level, and many in the BJP testify to this, the RSS itself had developed ambitions after seeing the benefits of a stint in power.
A source familiar with the workings of the RSS says that the Sangh's top brass now devotes at least 90 percent of its time and energy to the BJP, leaving it with very little time for its own activities. He says this has led to the weakening of the Sangh's own network with a dwindling membership and thinning attendance at shakhas. As a result, the RSS has becoming even more controlling of the BJP.
It's a vicious circle and the appointment of Gadkari as party president in December 2009 reflects the intense involvement of the RSS in the affairs of the BJP. He was chosen in the aftermath of a vicious power struggle between the older generation of leaders in the BJP including Advani and younger ones like Swaraj and Jaitley, who felt the baton should now pass. The RSS deliberately opted for a nonentity like Gadkari because it wanted someone who would be both obedient and loyal and help to cut the Delhi gang to size. It pulled him out of oblivion from Maharashtra and foisted him on the BJP, making a virtual mockery of the party's boasts of a pantheon of leaders and a democratic decision-making process.
The decision only underlines the Sangh's political naivete. The manner in which Gadkari has come apart under pressure (as evident from his ridiculous comparison of Swami Vivekanada and Dawood Ibrahim) indicates how little the RSS understands of the pressures and demands that politics imposes.
Yet the tussle continues. It is clear that the RSS has no intention of letting go. Bhagwat was totally hands-on through the latest crisis, fire-fighting over telephone from Chennai where the RSS was holding its pre-Diwali meet. It has managed to win a reprieve for Gadkari but it can only be a temporary one. A second term for him looks difficult in the light of the leadership battle that has broken out. At best, the RSS can only hope to ensure an honourable exit for Gadkari when his term finishes in December. But sooner or later, it will have to tackle the question: after Gadkari, who? The answer will decide the fate of the BJP in the next Lok Sabha election.
TOP FIVE CONTENDERS
KHILADI NO 1 | L K ADVANI
He's the 85-year-old patriarch who never says die. Eve at this ripe age he's willing to become even an interim party president and have one more shot at trying for the post of prime minister. He has earned himself a prized place in the annals of BJP history for putting the party on the national political map. But now, he's close to falling off the pedestal because of his illconcealed ambition. The RSS is clear that it wants to relegate him to the role of a mentor but he remains a contender simply because no-one can get him to retire.
RING MASTER | NARENDRA MODI
He's certainly the top choice of the BJP rank and file, earning thunderous applause and standing ovations from the cadre every time he gets up to speak. He's seen as strong, decisive, clean and committed to the Hindu cause. His popularity with ordinary BJP and RSS workers contrasts sharply with the suspicion the top leadership in both organisations harbours against him. He has alienated many with his arrogance and his loner leadership style and much of the turbulence in the BJP today is rooted in fears that he may stage a coup and throw them all out as he has done with the old guard in Gujarat. The RSS leaders understand his value as a BJP mascot and a star campaigner but they are afraid of handing over the reins to him for precisely this reason. He's virtually shut the RSS out of the Gujarat BJP. He could do that a national level too.
SMOOTH OPERATOR | ARUN JAITLEY
This suave, televisionsavvy, shrewd lawyer is viewed by friends and supporters as someone cast in the Vajpayee mold because of his impressive ability to win friends and influence people across the political spectrum. How many in the BJP can boast of having a comfortable working relationship with Chidambaram of the Congress, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M), Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), Satish Misra of the BSP, Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK, Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Akali Dal and a host of others in the smaller regional parties? Even his bitterest rivals admit that Jaitley is a superb backroom player. It's a valuable talent in a coalition era. But it is this very asset that makes the RSS uncomfortable. The Sangh suffered once with Vajpayee who was often described as the right man in the wrong party. It would hesitate to repeat the experience a second time, that too with a man who has yet to contest and win a Lok Sabha seat.
SON OF THE SOIL | RAJNATH SINGH
This self-styled kisan leader from UP remains a perennial contender because of his close links to the RSS. Although he hardly commended himself during an earlier stint as BJP president, it hasn't stopped him from lobbying desperately for a second chance. He has been working the RSS net ever since the Gadkari crisis erupted but with little success so far. Although the Sangh considers him more of a loyalist than the other four, it doesn't have much confidence in his ability to play the big Delhi game. His inability to deliver the crucial state of UP in the 2012 assembly elections has only made his case weaker.
SISTER ACT | SUSHMA SWARAJ
With her big bindi and a hairline full of sindoor, Swaraj presents the archetypal 'Bharatiya nari' image that sits well in saffron circles. An excellent public speaker, she knows all the right buttons to press while appealing to the BJP supporter, making her a much-sought after campaigner for the party. Her ability to attract votes from the uninitiated was first realised when she was fielded against Sonia Gandhi in faraway Bellary, Karnataka in 1999. She gave Sonia a tough fight in what was till then a Congress bastion. But, being a woman is a handicap in a patriarchal parivar. In the battle within the BJP, she has placed herself squarely in the Advani camp in the hope that the yesteryear leader can script her rise to the top. But the recent crisis seems to have brought home the perils of putting all her eggs in the basket of a fading star. For the first time, she went against her mentor to back Gadkari.
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