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Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's aggressive self-projection at last week's Mumbai meet of the BJP's national executive deepened divisions in a party wracked by a vicious power struggle that is proving to be as debilitating as the war within the Congress. If Modi and his cheerleaders thought they had settled the leadership issue for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls on the dais in Mumbai, they were in for a shock - Modi-baiters acted with lightning speed to burst their bubble.
The attack came almost immediately from two sides. One was in Modi's own backyard, in Gujarat, where a faction led by former CM and leading dissident Keshubhai Patel is threatening to split the party. The fact that the revolt comes just months before the assembly elections, due in November-December this year, spells trouble for Modi. He will have to devote time and effort to put out the fire otherwise he may find himself struggling for an easy victory for the third consecutive time.
The other salvo came from the man who was once his mentor and biggest promoter, L K Advani. Although a lion in winter now, Advani has damage potential as a rallying figure for those who fear Modi's rise but are hesitant to speak out for the moment. So far, Sushma Swaraj is the only one who has allied herself openly with Advani. Both were conspicuous by their absence at the rally in Mumbai where Modi took centre-stage to project himself as a potential prime ministerial candidate for the BJP.
That was just the beginning. A few days later, on the day that the BJP hoped to grab headlines with a nationwide bandh against the petrol price hike, Advani hit out again. He posted a blistering blog in which he lambasted party president Nitin Gadkari who gave Modi a starring role in Mumbai by caving in to his tantrums and sacking his bete noire, Sanjay Joshi, from the National Executive.
Advani carefully omitted all reference to Modi and concentrated on Gadkari's other controversial decisions. These include the one to induct tainted former BSP minister Babu Singh Khushwaha into the party on the eve of the UP assembly polls and the one to give a Rajya Sabha ticket from Jharkhand to NRI businessman Anshuman Mishra whose dubious connections caused uproar in the BJP. But the timing of the blog was a dead giveaway. He went public with his criticism only after the developments in Mumbai which have effectively put paid to any ambition he may still harbour to lead the BJP's charge in 2014.
In a way, what happened in Mumbai was virtually a coup by Modi. The decision to oust Joshi was a last minute one, taken on the eve of the meet by Gadkari without consulting anyone in the BJP, least of all Advani. Gadkari was obviously under pressure from the RSS to buy peace with Modi so that the party could put up a united face as it gears up for the next Lok Sabha polls. But the manner in which it was done gave Modi a huge boost which has only widened the cracks within the party.
The split is wide open now. Modi was always a polarising force. His Mumbai gambit has divided the party into two: those who are with him and those who are against him. At a time when the BJP needs to put its best foot forward to challenge a divided and weak Congress, it has ended up looking as factionridden and vulnerable.
With Advani too turning against him, it is clear that Modi has a tough battle ahead to claim a mantle that was once worn by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later, Advani. His first challenge is to win Gujarat. He is, of course, in pole position there, particularly since his main rival, the Congress, does not have a state leader with the personality and following to challenge him. Modi's troubles are largely internal and with Keshubhai Patel sounding the bugle for revolt, Modi has his task cut out for him.
Keshubhai is a fading force but he remains the tallest leader of the Patel community which is perhaps the most influential caste group in Gujarat and commands about 18 per cent of the vote share. Today, the Patels are deeply unhappy with Modi for several reasons. The most prominent is the fact that virtually all those convicted so far in the 2002 riot cases belong to this community. As many as 60 Patels have been convicted in three different incidents of communal violence. It sparked a caustic comment from
Keshubhai who said that Patels are "living in fear" in Gujarat. Evidence of this anger was available in the results of the recent bypolls in the Mansa assembly constituency. The BJP lost this traditional seat by a good margin to the Congress because the Patels did not come out to vote for the BJP.
Keshubhai will be addressing a Patel sammelan in Gujarat soon where many in the BJP expect the battlelines for the forthcoming elections to be drawn. If Modi is unable to contain the anger of the community or buy peace with it, he may find himself sailing in troubled waters, despite the non-existent challenge from the Congress.
But it's not just Keshubhai who Modi has to watch out for. Sanjay Joshi, who has worked for many years in Gujarat and has a formidable following in the state, is an unknown factor in the power battle. Modi is worried about him. This came through in the manner in which he unleashed local police intelligence at railway stations in Gujarat which Joshi was supposed to visit after the Mumbai meet. Joshi cancelled his trip after receiving a tip off. Those who know this quiet, self-effacing RSS man believe that he will not forget or forgive his humiliation in Mumbai and will work systematically to put a spanner in Modi's future plans.
Even if he wins Gujarat, Modi will have to neutralise the challenge mounted by Advani, Sushma and others who are yet to reveal their hand. Advani has made it clear that he will not go gently into the good night. He will rage, rage against the dying of the light, if not for himself, then for his loyalists whose future he would like to secure. And that can only happen at Modi's cost.
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