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Turf war in BJP

Western disturbance

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The battles of will between the Advani camp and the Sangh are nothing new. What has changed the equation is the prospect of a Modi win.

This past week's turf war in the BJP - a battle between the Sangh Parivar and the Sindh Parivar, as one cruel observer remarked - had a tedious air to it. On the face of it, it showed the principal opposition party as divided and factionalised beyond repair. Since his Pakistan visit of 2005, L K Advani has been fighting the RSS for supremacy in the party. Early November saw round 25 of that unending and entirely exasperating contest.

Like previously, Advani seemed to make a telling point - political autonomy for the BJP from the Sangh (2005); a strong position on corruption or even suspicion of wrongdoing (2012) - but like previously, his political ambitions seemed to be married into his objections. They were not views of a disinterested third party. This has made it difficult for even those who think Nitin Gadkari doesn't deserve a second term to unhesitatingly back the Advani coterie.
Many among the BJP stakeholders believe the current president's association with mysterious shell companies - notwithstanding S Gurumurthy's explanation - can cost the BJP in the coming election season. They would like to see Gadkari recede and perhaps stand down after his term is over in December. However, the mechanism the Old Guard in the BJP adopted - loud press conferences, haranguing and downright blackmail - could not have been seriously stomached by any organisation.

In sum, in their over-the-top opposition to Gadkari, the Jethmalanis, who were perceived as batting for Advani, may have ended up winning sympathy for the beleaguered founder of the Purti Group. Within the RSS, there was and remains widespread recognition that Gadkari is not best suited for another term as party chief, but absolute surrender to Advani is not acceptable either. At least one senior RSS person has made this point and convinced the others in the Sangh hierarchy that succumbing to pressure in this manner would irreversibly reduce RSS influence.

Advani, who turned 85 on November 8, has an illustrious past but has disquieted a lot of his former adherents by his refusal to fade away. The line-up of people who asked for Gadkari's removal this week represented the clique around him. Many of them were 70 and 80-somethings, part of a generation that feels its time will run out if Advani goes into the sunset and still hoping that the veteran somehow becomes the party's - and the NDA's - compromise choice for prime minister.

In the period after the NDA lost power in 2004, Advani's political instincts have either dulled or been guided by personal desires and loyalties. One of those who participated in an anti-Gadkari meeting this past week was Shatrughan Sinha, Advani's nominee for the post of Bihar's chief minister in 2005. Thankfully, wiser counsel prevailed and younger people in the party pushed ahead with the candidature of Nitish Kumar. The influence of Ananth Kumar on Advani, and the impact of that influence on the local politics of Karnataka, is also well known.

As for the Sangh, its continual desire, to quote a senior BJP leader, to "control the politics of the BJP rather than the politics of India" has driven it to taking sub-optimal decisions. Two successive party presidents have been parachuted into the top job by the Sangh rather than reflected the organic choice of the party. They have performed less than adequately but not everybody in the RSS is convinced that Nagpur must end its appointment veto and let a natural leader rise from within the BJP.

Both sets of obstinacies, those of Advani and the Sangh, have been around for a few years now. So what has changed? It is the prospect of a sunrise in the west. The Gujarat elections conclude in December 2012, coincidentally around the time Gadkari's term ends. Should Narendra Modi win again, those living in denial about his authority and popularity in the party, and the appeal he has for second-rank leaders and party workers, will be left bereft of argument. He will be the third man in the room - in addition to the Advani camp and the RSS-backed party bureaucrats in the BJP's central office in New Delhi - and his opinion will count.

In many senses, the Advani-RSS struggle for power in the past few days was a last attempt to consolidate territory before the inevitable happens, and therefore to be able to bargain with Modi on a stronger footing. At its recent conclave in Chennai, the RSS top brass was unanimous, for the first time, that Modi was the party's obvious mascot. In that context, the rounds of confabulations and media leaks, and the Jethmalanis' ceaseless media interviews, were only a diversion.

The BJP's post-2004 confusion then may actually be ending and leading to some clarity. To borrow from Fukuyama, at the End of History, even the End of Bad History, the party could just be left with the Last Man.

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