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Fissures In The Family
Hours before the BJP’s core group met at the party’s Ashoka Road headquarters in Delhi on November 6, the RSS swung into action. A little after 2 pm, sarsanghchalak Mohanrao Bhagwat did what might amount to the exceptional. He picked up the phone to speak to senior BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh. The message to each was brief and clear: ‘Support Nitin Gadkari. You have no other option.’
That small matter done with, another phone call was made to the party president himself, detailing the Sangh’s strategy and spelling out the chief’s directives for Gadkari. Sources say Bhagwat has turned this fight into a personal crusade. A contention seemingly justified by his handling of veteran leader L.K. Advani, who reportedly made it understood that he would not attend the core group meeting unless he was given an assurance that Gadkari would not be given a second term as president. This message reached the Sangh, which saw it as another bid by Advani to seize power in the party. That led to Bhagwat calling the others, but leaving out Advani, who didn’t attend the core group meeting. Three days later, on his birthday, Advani was quoted as saying he did not have prime ministerial ambitions.
The RSS is making it clear that Gadkari will be allowed to finish his first term, although the question about a second term is still being debated. Says an RSS leader: “Gadkari will not just complete his term, but the option of him getting a second term is also quite open. The RSS will only want him to step down if clinching proof of corruption in his business deals comes up in the next one month.” “For now, the Sangh believes that Gadkari’s alleged business irregularities do not amount to corruption; he hasn’t used his political position to benefit his business ventures and he hasn’t siphoned off party funds.” A sign of how seriously the Sangh views this latest attack on their boy from Nagpur was evinced by chartered accountant and right-wing ideologue S. Gurumurthy, who has a mesmeric hold on the RSS leadership, giving Gadkari a clean chit.
The senior men in Nagpur also continue to view the present situation as a direct challenge to their authority. As a senior pracharak tells Outlook, “Call it what you want. Gadkari was our choice and any attack on him is an attack on the RSS. That is not allowed.” The RSS top leadership believes that there has been a sustained campaign by BJP leaders in Delhi to discredit the Sangh’s choice of party presidents. “An attempt has been made to prove that the Sangh’s political experiments in the past, both with making Rajnath Singh and Gadkari party presidents, have been failures. It is evident now that the BJP is an arm of the Sangh and they will have to listen to the RSS. After all, the rebellion in the party, which you saw, was both engineered and motivated.”
Many in the BJP agree that certain lobbies within the party have much to gain by destabilising Gadkari’s position. Mahesh Jethmalani quitting the national executive in protest against Gadkari’s staying as party president would seem to vindicate that supposition. A senior BJP leader explained the incident thus, “The resignation and the threat of more to come happened only after RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi held a press conference in Chennai to support Gadkari. It had nothing to do with Gadkari’s faux pas on Swami Vivekananda.”
BJP insiders point to other subplots in the family drama. While the leadership issue is still unresolved, it is believed that Advani tried to step into the mix. As someone who has challenged the RSS in the past (and has refused to depart from the scene despite the many attempts and overtures sent his way), he first showed support for Gadkari—in essence, an attempt to mend bridges with the RSS, then when he saw an opportunity for himself, he sent out signals that he was now ready to take up the president’s role once again.
Then there is the problem of Narendra Modi foisting trouble through BJP MP Ram Jethmalani, who has an old association with the Gujarat CM. A party leader queried if father and son were Modi’s stalking horses in the party or simply mavericks acting of their own accord. “Many in the BJP are asking about the Jethmalanis who are open advocates of Modi,” asks a leader adding, “A majority of the second rung leaders in the BJP say that Modi is the only one who can get them anywhere close to power in 2014.” It is clear that the RSS is preparing for a time when it will also have to face off against Modi.
Everyone else has bit parts in the show. For instance, it is said Sushma Swaraj spoke out in Gadkari’s favour to earn goodwill from the RSS. “Sushmaji does not have an RSS background and that was seen as working against her,” says an insider. Besides which she is viewed as competition to Jaitley, who has a good working relationship with Modi, an abvp background and a valuable skill set as a lawyer who understands policy issues.
A curious situation has developed. Miffed over its Maharashtrian Brahmin candidate Gadkari landing in a soup, the Sangh is suspicious about the three leaders from the parivar. Modi, Advani and Jaitley are being viewed with suspicion since each is seen as having the potential to act independently. Such is life in the great saffron family.