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Narendra Modi is now threatening to become a bigger leader in the BJP than A.B. Vajpayee ever was, at least in some ways. This raises the question: can the RSS exert even the degree of control it had over Vajpayee on its new candidate for PM? And does the RSS need Modi more than the other way around? It was the RSS which chose Vajpayee as PM candidate in 1996, overlooking Advani. Later, it forced ABV to shift Jaswant Singh from the finance ministry in 1998. Till 2004, Sangh outfits like the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and VHP kept up a volley of pinpricks to force ABV’s hand on economic and foreign policy issues. The then RSS chief had even called for the sack of Arun Shourie as disinvestment minister for the sale of some psus.
These irritants notwithstanding, Vajpayee managed reasonably well, as Nagpur allowed him some leeway, a tactical space. And the strategy paid off. While the BJP was untouchable in 1996 and its minority government fell within 13 days, it was the Sangh’s pragmatism that allowed it to use ABV’s personal charm and diplomacy to attract regional and secular allies, enabling the BJP to form governments in 1998 and 1999.
Modi is no Vajpayee. The Gujarat CM has already become a cult figure, much to the Sangh’s discomfort. But the RSS, its eyes firmly set on the end rather than the means, will have to countenance Modi and his social, economic and political philosophy at least in this ‘semi-final’ phase. The final will be when the BJP bags a simple majority on its own.
If Modi becomes the prime minister next month as his spin doctors are projecting, he is unlikely to have a smooth run. Having raised the expectations of powerful corporate and US lobbies, he will have to deliver, and for that to happen, the RSS has to hold back its ‘swadeshi’ slogan and wink at the western model of economic growth pushed by the IMF and World Bank. In short, the Sangh should cease to interfere in policy formulations and the decision-making of the new government, an unlikely scenario.
Only time will tell whether Modi will be able to coopt the RSS or vice versa. If he allows himself to be controlled by the Sangh, his honeymoon with the corporate and foreign handlers will not last. Many corporate lobbyists believe Modi will liberate the BJP from the RSS economic vision, change its dna and complete its conversion to a pro-corporate and market-friendly party, perhaps a clone of the Congress with a saffron tinge. That a la Rahul Gandhi in the Congress, Modi (once at the helm), will drastically alter the existing power structure within the BJP and dismantle ‘collective’ leadership, say some Modi-watchers.
The thesis being propounded by them is that parties run by strong women or men (read Mayawati, Mamata, Jayalalitha, Nitish Kumar, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh, the Thackerays et al) are successful whereas those encumbered by ‘collective’ leadership such as the BJP and the CPI(M) have been on the decline. That is, an ‘autocratic’ personality is needed to make a party victorious and that it’s Modi who can do that for the BJP.
That’s a flawed premise. The CPI(M) created history of sorts ruling West Bengal uninterruptedly for 34 years by balancing personality with collective leadership. If the party lost power, it is not because of collective leadership but due to its failure to respond to the changing times. In Kerala, the Congress and the CPI(M) alternate every five years irrespective of the type of leadership.
Collective leadership is not such a dirty word. Advani and his peers contributed to a great extent to increase the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally from two in 1984 to 182 in 1999. It will be interesting to watch if an organisation as multilayered as the RSS, and one which at least claims to stand for an egalitarian society, would tolerate the emergence of a persona of a Putin or Indira Gandhi in the BJP.
Modi handlers who believe the RSS is ‘desperate’ for power after a long spell of drought and ‘beholden’ to Modi’s leadership qualities, and therefore willing to play second fiddle to him, should dissect the recent statement of sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat: “The question is not who should form the next government.... The bigger question is who should not form the next government.” That reveals the thinking.
Kay Benedict is a senior political journalist