According to media speculation the new BJP president will be chosen within the next week. The choice becomes significant one year before the next general election. The importance of the President of India’s major opposition party cannot be minimized. Newspapers had indicated that RSS Chief Mr. Mohan Bhagwat favoured a second term for Mr. Nitin Gadkari. However that is no longer certain. Two events create doubts.
First, the Enforcement Directorate has issued income tax notices to Mr. Gadkari. This suggests that the government is all set to publicize allegations of financial irregularity by the BJP President. Whatever the doubts about the authenticity of the charges or their gravity, the adverse publicity that the government could generate in an election year would be considerable. In the event the strongest election issue against the UPA government – its mind boggling corruption – would be effectively blunted. Discretion therefore may dictate that Mr. Gadkari be denied a second term.
The second event relates to the recent meeting between Mr. Advani and Mr. Bhagwat which was followed by a meeting between Mr. Advani, Mr. Gadkari and Mr. Ram Jethmalani. In the latter meeting Mr. Advani acted the peace maker between Mr. Gadkari and Mr. Jethmalani who had criticized the BJP President and then been expelled from the party for indiscipline. Mr. Jethmalani publicly ate his words and Mr. Gadkari welcomed him back in the party. From this unsavoury episode it appears that some sort of compromise between the RSS and Mr. Advani may have been achieved. It was an acknowledged fact that Mr. Advani was the strongest impediment to Mr. Gadkari getting a second term as President.
Mr. Narendra Modi’s emergence as an aspirant for the Prime Ministerial candidate had not been universally hailed by the BJP central party and that had led to a flurry of activity. On November 28, 2012 it was pointed out in these columns:
“There are three discernable poles of power and influence in the BJP. Party President Mr. Nitin Gadkari backed by the RSS represents one pole. Mr. LK Advani with the parliamentary party behind him represents the second pole. Gujarat Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi who has caught the imagination of the party cadres represents the third pole…Mr. Narendra Modi is the front runner to become the prime ministerial candidate of the party in 2014. Earlier the RSS and its nominated party president Mr. Gadkari were perceived to be in opposition to Mr. Modi…Now there is no conflict between the RSS plus Mr. Gadkari on the one hand and Mr. Modi on the other. The RSS would like to continue Mr. Gadkari in his post as party president for a second term. That would suit Mr. Modi because a weakened Mr. Gadkari would perforce cooperate with him after the Gujarat assembly election. The potential threat to Mr. Modi’s ambitions comes from Mr. LK Advani…But the RSS is not enamoured of Mr. Advani. He is too tall a leader to have in the past acted as obediently as Mr. Gadkari…For Mr. Advani to strategically position himself for 2014 he would have to become the BJP President by replacing Mr. Gadkari for the next presidential term.”
Could the recent meetings held by Mr. Advani with the RSS Chief and BJP President suggest that his wishes have been fulfilled? More likely a half way compromise may have been reached. The RSS may have agreed to keep the issue of the next Prime Ministerial candidate open giving Mr. Advani the chance of staking his claim on the strength of his acceptability among NDA allies. The RSS would be the gainer from open rivalry between Mr. Modi and Mr. Advani facilitating a divide and rule approach. As far as the next party presidential candidate is concerned there might emerge an altogether new compromise candidate. Who could that be? Media speculation has identified three front runners, Mr. Manohar Parrikar, Mr. Shanta Kumar and Mr. Rajnath Singh.
If media speculation is correct, the chances of Mr. Rajnath Singh seem brightest. While the individual qualities of the others may be no less, the fact of representing India ’s largest state in an election year could prove to be the clincher. If the badly damaged prospects of the BJP through inept leadership are to be revived it can only be done by a spectacular electoral performance in Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Rajnath Singh as a forward caste leader is a competent manager with a proven record in conflict management. Backward caste leader Miss Uma Bharati has already returned to the BJP having migrated from Madhya Pradesh to Uttar Pradesh.
More significantly, Mr. Kalyan Singh is poised to return to the BJP. It may be recalled that the BJP’s finest hour in Uttar Pradesh occurred during his tenure as Chief Minister when the party had won 57 Lok Sabha seats. Mr. Rajnath Singh had forged the winning Thakur-Backward alliance. Inner party intrigue and mismanagement led to Mr. Kalyan Singh’s ouster costing BJP 28 seats in the ensuing election. In 1999 BJP won 29 Lok Sabha seats. By 2004 and 2009 its UP tally had reduced to 7 and 10 seats! The prospect of reviving a combination of forward and backward caste leaders to turn around the BJP fortunes in the state may tempt the RSS to select Mr. Rajnath Singh as the next BJP President.
This conjecture is based of course upon a rational understanding of the situation. Experience suggests that decisions taken by political parties in India are anything but rational.