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There is a lesser known story about the alleged bugging incident at Nitin Gadkari’s residence that needs to be told. Some days before the news became public, the Union road transport and highways minister had a meeting with the top brass of the RSS in New Delhi. The former BJP president, known for his proximity to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, expressed apprehensions that top leaders in the party, including himself, were being snooped upon. Gadkari conveyed to the men from Nagpur that he was not the only one, but that other senior party leaders and at least two senior ministers in the Narendra Modi government were being constantly monitored.
It was at this time that Bhagwat intervened and asked Gadkari to deny the snooping incident in public suggesting that it would dent the image of the BJP and the prime minister. The party had come to power with an absolute majority, and this would have given the opposition an easy handle to beat it with. It was after this meeting that the RSS also communicated to senior BJP leaders, including the two Union ministers, to not give much credence to such incidents and concentrate on the larger issues at hand. “It has taken us years and concerted efforts to come to power; let internal rivalry not sabotage it for us. We are gaining momentum in the country and nothing should be said and done which could harm our chances of taking over Maharashtra, Haryana and garnering a majority in the byelections in Uttar Pradesh,” was the unofficial word. The following day, despite contradictory statements by the chief conspiracy theorist of the party, Subramanian Swamy, that Gadkari’s residence was indeed bugged, the latter himself issued a denial. Union home minister Rajnath Singh was forced to issue an anodyne statement in the Rajya Sabha that the story was at best speculative.
However, if party insiders are to be believed, with the exception of finance minister Arun Jaitley and party president Amit Shah, many BJP leaders are upset with the supremacy of one individual over the entire party. In fact, the rumbling over the micro-management of the PMO began within days of the NDA government assuming power when Rajnath Singh’s aides were accused of leaking information about cabinet portfolios to the media, forcing him to cut off all communications with the media, including on-record statements. In fact, in a conversation with this journalist, a senior minister remarked, “Ab toh hamare secretary bhi hamare nahin hai, yeh bhi hum par thope jaate hain (Even our secretaries and advisors are imposed on us, we do not have any decision-making power).”
Another incident which went viral across political circles was the imposition of a dress code on information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar, giving further taste of the tight control the Modi dispensation had over ministers. Javadekar was on his way to take a flight for a conference in Kenya, dressed casually in a pair of denims and T-shirt. He was barely a kilometre from his official residence when he apparently received a phone call from someone in the PMO, reprimanding him for his casual sense of dressing. What bothered Javadekar was the thought that somebody was keeping a tab on his movements and giving minute-by-minute information to the PMO.
Home minister Rajnath Singh, a ‘sadbhavana’ advocate, said at a recent inter-party meet that he felt awkward over the communal comments made by some party members.
Even if one were to keep such rumours aside, there is many a decision that has been taken, including the appointment of Amit Shah (who was chargesheeted by the CBI on charges of murder, extortion and conspiracy), that has ruffled party feathers. Much of this ire is directed at an unofficial core group led by Modi that includes Shah, his advisors from the Gujarat government, national security advisor A.K. Doval, and his most trusted man from the RSS, Ram Madhav, who recently joined the BJP. Madhav, who had cautioned the government on its relationship with China in an editorial in June this year, is already being referred to as Modi’s unofficial defence minister. This bunch of confidants along with a few intellectuals are also (almost without fail) a part of the Delhi-based think-tank, the Vivekananda Foundation, which today determines most of the decisions taken by the NDA and, most importantly, the fate of the BJP leaders who despite heading significant ministries have just come to be nameless entities.
It’s not surprising then that post taking over as the new BJP chief, Shah handpicked his own political team with absolutely no interference or advice from the top brass. Within days, the BJP in-charge for the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Assam were changed by Shah who has sought absolute independence from Modi should he wish a repeat of the party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh. Shah’s shrewd political manoeuvring, consolidation of the Jats and OBCs in Uttar Pradesh with ground-level polarisation by pracharaks and ABVP workers handpicked for the state resulted in what was one of the BJP’s best ever LS polls performance in the state.
Those close to the BJP chief say that Shah was very keen on the induction of former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa in the core team despite the reluctance of senior leaders in the RSS and the BJP, including Ananth Kumar. Shah’s position of absolute power granted to him by his political mentor, Narendra Modi, ensured that the detractors kept their counsel vis-a-vis his decision. Yediyurappa’s track record of creating communal tension in Karnataka—letting right-wing fringe elements spread the false notion of a ‘love jehad’—was single-handedly responsible for allowing communalism (besides nepotism) to flourish in the state.
But Shah, riding on the ‘man of the match’ honour bestowed on him at the recently held national council, is in no mood to be affected by the perceptions of the leaders picked by him. Much to the embarrassment of senior leaders present at the national council, Modi had made it clear that the victory was a result of the partnership with his confidant from Gujarat (with whom he had run a successful innings for three terms in the state).
These statements did not go down well with the RSS whose covert support to the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement had set the ball rolling for the BJP in the country. At a raksha bandhan gathering right after, Bhagwat took a dig at Modi saying, “Kuchh log bol rahe hain ki party ko safalta mili. Kuch log bol rahe hain ki koi vyakti ke liye jeet mili. Koi vyakti, party ya sangathan ki wajah se yeh parivartan nahin hua. Aam aadmi ne parivartan chaaha (Some people say the success was due to the party. Some others say it was because of some individuals. Fact is the common man wanted change). The same individuals and the party existed earlier also. Why were not they voted to power? It is the people who wanted change and brought the party to power,” Bhagwat asserted.
But Bhagwat, even with his tested Hindu rashtra rhetoric, is increasingly losing hold over the PMO unlike what his predecessors had over the Vajpayee regime. The appointment of Smriti Irani as HRD minister whose claim to a degree from Yale has made her the target of attacks in the party’s inner circles has been a sharp indicator of Modi’s iron fist rule. As a pracharak known for his proximity to Bhagwat says caustically, “Irani was a leader handpicked by the PM. The fact that the RSS, known for its hold on the HRD in the past government, could not interfere doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”
The simmering disquiet at the one-man show is palpable, but there is little the stalwarts and senior leaders can do about it. At political dinners, the target of humour is a senior cabinet minister who has spoken about a fear of travelling in an official chopper. Rajnath Singh, who in the past has spoken of sadbhavana between the two communities and is a regular at tea parties with leaders of the Muslim community in UP, recently commented at an inter-party meeting that he was finding it increasingly awkward that despite coming to power in the name of development, members of the party were giving statements or seen endorsing communally polarising incidents. The home minister has found himself in an awkward and isolated space, much like his senior party colleagues, with absolute irreverence shown to his suggestion. Bhagwat and the RSS could well reap the fruits of the majoritarian experiment, but the party over which they claimed dominance is slipping from their hold.
(Rana Ayyub’s 2010 investigation into the Gujarat fake encounters for Tehelka led to Amit Shah’s incarceration.)