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His way or the highway

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Gujarat CM Narendra Modi has good reason to smile over bugbear Sanjay Joshi's exit from the BJP's National Executive. It's not just a hard-fought victory which paved the way from him to attend the party convention in Mumbai. It's also a signal that his star is ascending again as the BJP gears up for the next Lok Sabha polls.

For more than a year, the BJP ignored his demands to sack Joshi. Modi sulked and threw tantrums. He boycotted the last National Executive meet in Delhi and stayed away from the party's UP assembly poll campaign because Joshi was in charge. The BJP opted to ignore him to send out a message that the party is bigger than individuals. So why did it cave in on the eve of the Mumbai convention?

The peace deal, it seems, was brokered by the RSS which is keen that the BJP present a united face so that it can position itself as an effective alternative to the Congress in the general elections. While there is a general disenchantment, especially among the middle classes, with the Congress, the BJP has not been able to take full advantage because it has given the impression of a divided house. Its internal bickerings are no longer a secret and there is an open power struggle between leaders like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi to be the party's prime ministerial candidate in 2014, or whenever the parliamentary polls may be. There is no decision yet on who will lead the party but after the RSS intervened on his behalf on the Joshi issue, many in the BJP believe that Modi has inched forward in the race.

Modi's rise comes in the context of the fading appeal of the Congress, which is seen as a party of weak and ineffective leaders. This perception of the Congress has strengthened after Rahul Gandhi's flop show in the just concluded UP assembly elections which were supposed to be his launching pad to lead the Congress into the parliamentary polls. Modi, on the other hand, has shrewdly fashioned himself as a strong, decisive man of development, despite the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots which continue to haunt him. Endorsements from corporate leaders like Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata have helped and his efforts peaked when he made it to the cover of TIME magazine which lauded his administration for changing the face of Gujarat.

The ouster of Joshi is a major snub to BJP president Nitin Gadkari who was responsible for promoting Modi's b?te noir in the party. Gadkari has admitted to a troubled relationship with the Gujarat CM but with the RSS cracking the whip, he has had to back down. In fact, before agreeing to a second term for him, RSS leaders summoned Gadkari for a frank talk in which they are believed to have admonished him for the manner in which he has been running the party.

The battle to lead the charge in the parliamentary polls is heating up and despite the placatory gesture to him at Mumbai, Modi has no assurance that he will be picked. The RSS has always been uneasy about his lone wolf style of functioning and his refusal to accept the Sangh's supremacy in the saffron parivar. But it is also aware of Modi's popularity among the rank and file of the BJP. Even his critics will concede that when Modi rises to speak at any party gathering, he connects instantly with his audience and receives rapturous applause. The Gujarat CM is possibly the only leader the BJP has today who can galvanise the party cadre at election time.

Here is the dilemma then. On the one hand, the BJP must get enough seats to retain leadership of the NDA and stake claim to form the next government. And Modi is the best bet for this. But in a post-poll scenario, his controversial role in the Gujarat riots will repel any party that needs minority votes to win. In this context, Jaitley and Sushma are certainly more acceptable to existing and future allies. Jaitley has also proved his utility as a trouble-shooter for the party. He was instrumental in brokering a truce both in Karnataka and Rajasthan recently where former CMs BS Yeddyurappa and Vasundhara Raje were on the warpath. Sushma is an excellent campaigner and probably the BJP's best counter to Sonia Gandhi. It's not an easy decision for the RSS to take.

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