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Now that Rajnath Singh is set to become BJP president, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s Delhi plans may face a new obstacle. An outward show of geniality is likely, but the Rajnath-Modi relationship has a history of rancour. Rajnath, as party chief in 2006-09, had thrown Modi out of the BJP’s parliamentary board. By now the RSS ambivalence on Modi is strong—and Rajnath is a Sangh choice. So Modi may not necessarily find an eager cheerleader in him.
The real inhibiting factor, of course, will be the RSS, which believes it was pushed to a corner during the party president’s election. It was forced to select by elimination. Now, RSS stalwarts are likely to vet and veto appointments to all BJP positions. “In recent times, we have taken a different approach: we don’t tell the BJP what needs to be done, we tell them what should not be done,” says a senior Sangh functionary. So even if a reluctant consensus emerges in the party about Modi as prime ministerial candidate, the Sangh could try to scuttle it. Rajnath, as party chief, will be the one talking to the allies—and can cite their opposition. A strong scenario is that Modi could be offered the ambiguous post of election committee chief, with the decision on his entering the prime ministerial race reserved till after the elections. Modi is unlikely to accept this and could stay out. Besides, Rajnath himself can be a prime ministerial candidate—as can be a few others.
A functionary says the Sangh has taken a new approach to handling the BJP: it now tells the party what not to do instead of dictating terms.
There was a fair bit of drama in the way his predecessor’s re-election bid came unstuck on the home stretch. Just hours after the notification for presidential elections in the BJP, on January 22, it was learnt that the income-tax department had raided companies linked to Nitin Gadkari. Providence had smiled on lobbies opposed to him—indeed, there were sly hints of a friendly hand in government doing a good turn to someone. Anyway, what had seemed like fait accompli now had to be stalled—a second term for Gadkari was now out of the question. In Delhi, the Sangh’s pointsman in the BJP, Suresh Soni, considered close to both Arun Jaitley and Rajnath, lost no time in taking the cue. He rallied all hands on the deck. Urgent calls were made to Rajnath, who rushed back from a journey to his constituency Ghaziabad. Venkaiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj, Ananth Kumar, all assembled in Jaitley’s office.
In Mumbai, senior party leader L.K. Advani told RSS deputy chief Bhaiyyaji Joshi that the presidential election the next day would not be smooth, with Yashwant Sinha threatening to contest. Bhaiyyaji struck down Sinha’s name, saying he was a “rank outsider”; Rajnath’s name was proposed as the consensus replacement for Gadkari. Support for Rajnath came not just from Soni, but also senior leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar. Sources also say that Modi and Jaitley had earlier put their weight behind Naidu, known to be close to both of them.
What played out in Delhi was more the outcome of internal politics in the Sangh than infighting in the BJP. The Sangh has had its way, but some senior leaders are quite unhappy over the “manner in which Rajnath has been made president” and say it has dented the Sangh’s image.
As things spiralled out of control on January 22, sources confirm that Bhaiyyaji told Gadkari to propose Rajnath’s name for presidency. Sangh sources also confirm that Soni had had his way, settling scores not just within the Sangh but also with Gadkari. For he was reportedly miffed with the Sangh for curtailing his role in coordinating between the BJP and Nagpur. Of late the Sangh had entrusted to Bhaiyyaji a lot of Soni’s work. Soni also held a grudge against Gadkari after the unceremonious removal of his aide, Prabhat Jha, as the chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP.
Senior BJP leaders confirm the infighting will only worsen after Rajnath’s takeover, given the meagre support he has within his own party. Singh’s only actual support comes from Sushma Swaraj; others are known to be opposed to him. As a senior party leader put it, “The slugfest has just begun.”