With clear indications from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that he wanted Modi sacked and the much-awaited thumbs down from TDP chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, it looked as if the pro-Modi lobby—comprising his old ABVP buddies, scattered over various frontal organisations—had received a blow. BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy strongly defended Modi at his inaugural address in Goa. Nevertheless, the chorus against the CM cannot be easily muzzled. Among those apparently determined to make a pitch for Modi's ouster was BJP office-bearer and former Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. "When a significant section of the people of Gujarat have lost faith in its government, any and all possible steps to restore that confidence are essential," Naqvi told Outlook.
Union food and civil supplies minister Shanta Kumar, in a thinly-veiled attack on Modi's supporters, told Outlook: "To restore peace and win the trust and confidence of the people of Gujarat should be our priority. To that end, people should rise above personal ties (vyaktigat moh sey upar uth ke)." Another senior leader expected to press for Modi's exit is Madan Lal Khurana. He had quit his post as vice-president in charge of the state after Modi was sworn in as CM and hasn't visited Gujarat since. The Bihar brigade of Union minister Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajya Sabha MP Shatrughan Sinha, who are known Modi baiters, were also on the watch-list of Modi's supporters.
Emboldened by the TDP chief's statement that the Gujarat government "has failed miserably in effectively and impartially discharging the responsibility in not only quelling violence but also providing relief and rehabilitation to the victims", the NDA allies have stepped up pressure on the PM. Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Shakti party and Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress have openly asked for Modi's ouster. Om Prakash Chautala's INLD and Sharad Yadav's JD(U) are also understood to be upset. Samata did a curious U-turn, with spokesperson Shambhu Srivastava quitting after his demand for Modi's head was denied by the party leadership. In fact, Union minister George Fernandes was playing troubleshooter on the eve of the Goa session.
And now that the TDP has finally asked that Modi go, it seems they will settle for nothing less. In a strongly-worded resolution, the TDP said that unless Modi was removed "we (the TDP) will be guilty of eroding public confidence and failing to provide just and fair governance to the citizens of the country" and even threatened not to accept the Lok Sabha Speaker's post. With its 27 MPs a critical factor in NDA stability, Naidu's dictum is hard to ignore.
As the tempo for Modi's ouster built up, law minister Arun Jaitley flew to Ahmedabad to work out options with the Gujarat chief minister. Potential CMs lined up—former CMs Suresh Mehta and Keshubhai Patel and textiles minister Kanshiram Rana. Modi votaries are likely to try and turn the situation to their advantage by making a strong pitch for holding a snap poll in Gujarat. If Modi is to go under pressure from Naidu & Co, he could take the government with him and seek a public mandate. After all, Gujarat is the only significant state the party has left, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand being considerably smaller. And the communal polarisation in Gujarat seems to suggest that a quick election will yield dividends for the BJP.
What has lent weight to their argument in favour of elections is the fact that the Congress in Gujarat is in very poor shape. While the party's central leadership has been on the warpath against Modi, the state leaders have been muted throughout. A Gujarat Congressman explained that in the current scenario, "it is difficult for us to go to the people. The central leaders may talk of a campaign by the party's chief ministers in Gujarat, but they don't know the ground realities".
The PM, however, is against the idea of holding elections because that would come across as an exercise in political opportunism. This would in turn further corrode the image of the BJP which has already taken a beating. Asks Shanta Kumar: "Is democracy to be founded on the corpses of innocents? Kya narsanghar se hamare vote badenge (will genocide increase our votes)?"
Indications are that the RSS is not likely to raise a hue and cry over Modi's removal, if only because the central leadership is more preoccupied with the divide between the parivar and the BJP than Modi's political future. There is no doubt that Modi enjoys the absolute confidence of the Gujarat wing of the RSS and the VHP but if he has friends in the RSS and BJP, he also has many enemies.
After a two-day "team baithak" in Ghaziabad, pracharaks are understood to have been told to contact their friends in the BJP and influence them to raise questions regarding the party's ideological alienation from the parivar, on the pretext of good governance which it has not been able to provide. It is on these issues that L.K. Advani is reported to have had a prolonged meeting with RSS joint general secretary Madan Dass Devi on Tuesday last week. RSS sources also said that when sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan heard of Shanta Kumar's statements to the press, he wasn't annoyed so much at the attack on Modi as that on the VHP and Bajrang Dal. The sarsanghchalak is concerned over the lack of "paraspar vishwas" (mutual confidence) between the members of the RSS family and said as much in his baudhik (discourse) last fortnight.
The PM has managed to convey the impression that he would love to sack Modi in half a minute, but is hamstrung by party hardliners. What makes Shanta Kumar's outburst important is the widespread belief that the PM is firing from his shoulder. The cabinet minister said the riots had brought Hindutva a bad name. "What happened in Gujarat, whether in Godhra or Ahmedabad, was sheer bestiality and not an expression of religious sentiments of any kind.... I am a pracharak of the RSS, committed to that philosophy. The violence in Gujarat is not part of our ideology," he said.
Party insiders believe that Shanta Kumar would not have spoken without the PM's permission. He does have a tendency to speak out—having once described the demolition of the Babri Masjid as an "Islamic act" and jailed an MLA who took part in it (not to mention describing the BJP's defence of Bangaru Laxman as an endorsement of corruption by the party). But he could not have gone to this extent without Vajpayee's consent.
Ever since his visit to Gujarat last fortnight, the PM has been distancing himself from Modi. Jealously guarding his moderate image, he is reportedly concerned that India has lost brownie points internationally. US assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca's recent statement describing the events in Gujarat as "horrible" and calling for a restoration of peace and stability cannot be ignored. Significantly, just when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was on the backfoot, Gujarat appears to have given him some leverage.
Strong censure from corporate interests has also weighed with the PM. The decline in industrial productivity and growth has not been as worrying as the growing impression that Gujarat is no longer a safe destination for investors, whether foreign or Indian. For a state which was the destination of choice, that is quite a come-down. Unless Modi is shifted, that confidence may not be restored, it is feared. Besides, the Opposition—riding high after a series of electoral successes—finds Modi a convenient stick with which to beat the government. If it stalls Parliament on the Modi issue, passing the budget could become difficult.
Major reshuffles, both in the government and in the party set-up are expected after the Goa conclave (although Krishnamurthy appears safe for the moment). Indications are that the regional wings of the party are in for a major facelift. Narendra Modi's detractors feel a change of guard in Gujarat may be a good place to initiate the "new-look BJP exercise". But pessimists in the party point out that the last time the BJP held its national executive in Goa, its government in Delhi fell (April 1999). It behoves the BJP, they say, to tread with extreme caution in the coming months.
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