The best thing that happened to Dr Murli Manohar Joshi this past fortnight was a dinner at the Sangh karyalaya in Delhi's Jhandewalan area. The Union HRD minister sat cross-legged on the floor, next to RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan, to partake of the simple daily vegetarian fare at the Sangh mess along with about 30 full-timers. After dinner there was an hour-long one-to-one between Joshi and Sudarshan in the latter's room. Joshi reportedly explained the reasons for resigning after the special court at Rae Bareli ordered the framing of criminal charges against him and six others for the Babri Masjid demolition. Sources reveal that the RSS chief also gave "a sympathetic ear" to the BJP stalwart's problems within the party. Joshi reportedly left a little after 10 pm in a distinctly upbeat mood.
Other than this, it has been a nightmare week for the minister-in-a-limbo. It started with the court letting off his bete noire, deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, who had actually led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Then there was a clear attempt by the Advani-controlled party to corner Joshi after he tried to occupy the moral high ground by submitting his resignation after the court order. Worse, reports in a section of the press said the Sangh had turned its back on their blue-eyed minister. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's absence from the country, and his studied ambivalence on the resignation, did not help either.
The BJP is, indeed, in the grip of a full-blown faction fight. And no one can emerge out of this mess clean. At first, Joshi seemed to have painted himself into a corner. He had little choice but to resign as he had already made a public commitment to do so—though that was seen as a gambit meant to pressure Advani, on the assumption that he too would be charged. That didn't come about, and Joshi was left trying to make a virtue out of a liability. It soon became evident the resignation didn't go down well in the party organisation as it also brought Advani's reputation on the line. If Joshi quit 'for' the mandir, what about the man who spearheaded the movement? A BJP general-secretary went to the extent of saying "Joshi had violated the party line that said no one need resign on the Ayodhya issue".
Everyone is now waiting for Vajpayee to take a decision on the issue. "I will decide only after speaking to the prime minister. He has asked me to wait," says Joshi (see interview). Isolated in the party, Joshi's hopes are now pinned on Vajpayee. But will Vajpayee compel Joshi to take back his resignation and face an uproar in Parliament over the issue of a chargesheeted minister continuing in office? Or will he accept the resignation and then back Joshi's bid for the party presidency in December this year when Venkaiah Naidu's term comes to an end? No one in the party seems to know and no hints have been forthcoming from the pmo.
There are, of course, those who are reading deep meaning into the PM's 'jocular' remark in New York that he will soon be joining the long list of ex-prime ministers. He also said as long as he was in office, he'd discharge his duties "honourably". Was the PM warning the BJP's warring factions against putting pressure on him?
Then there is the question of what happens to Uma Bharati, the BJP's candidate in Madhya Pradesh. For even though she can contest elections despite being chargesheeted, no one has ever occupied a CM's chair under such circumstances. Also, the impact of its senior leaders being charged under the ipc could seriously polarise the electorate in a manner not desired now.
All these problems are mounting against the backdrop of the looming assembly polls and a general election. A BJP strategist sums up the situation thus: "Everyone is nervous and jumpy.Fears are mounting that this may be the last year in power. Will Vajpayee continue? Will Advani ever get a shot at the top job? What will happen to Venkaiah Naidu if the BJP loses the assembly polls?" In the middle of all this, Joshi's resignation has clearly exposed the fault-lines within the party.
On the face of it, Joshi is no match for Advani. But the DPM has also lost face after the court order. The case was actually listed as 'State versus L.K. Advani and seven others'. Even RSS spokesman Ram Madhav says, "Some people are saying it is absurd that the main accused is let off but not the others. In any case, we believe that everyone should be let off." vhp president Ashok Singhal told journalists outside Joshi's residence that "if Advani can be let off, so can the others. But Vajpayee and Advani are both hypocrites". A senior BJP leader too found it "strange that Advani has been left out of the chargesheet itself. It's understandable if the others are upset and angry". Indeed, there are whispers about a "special deal" struck by a high-profile BJP leader with the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government in Uttar Pradesh to get Advani off. Highly-placed BJP sources say the idea was to clear the DPM for the top job "if required in the event of any emergency".
Meanwhile, Joshi is also hinging his hopes on the appeal against the order his lawyers plan to file. For if the very "standards" that were applied to Advani are applied to him, and Joshi too is let off by the courts, then the resignation problem will fade to black. But there is a risk involved with this legal strategy as the courts will also review the decision to let off Advani. Advocate and Congress Rajya Sabha member R.K. Anand points out that the DPM can still be trapped in the Ayodhya cases. "There is a review petition in the Supreme Court regarding the dropping of criminal conspiracy charges. And the Rae Bareli court order will also be challenged. Advani will have to be reborn to get out of the Ayodhya cases. He was the brain behind the demolition. The others were executors," he says.
All this, however, has fuelled intense speculation about who will emerge winner from the latest slugfest in the party. For linked to Joshi's resignation is the issue of party presidency. A new president will be chosen in December this year soon after the assembly election results. At the moment, it is not certain whether Naidu will retain the presidency. Vajpayee is believed to have "serious reservations" about backing the man who had tried to prop up Advani as the 'lohpurush'. However, Joshi's hopes of becoming BJP president may be equally unrealistic. Advani would oppose this tooth and nail and the PM would not risk an open war with his deputy. The very clever Pramod Mahajan could emerge as the consensus candidate. But his stumbling block would be the RSS which is very suspicious of the high-flying Mumbai politician.
With international concerns on his mind, Vajpayee prefers to be above factional feuds. He has lined up several foreign trips in the coming weeks and the current joke in BJP circles is about "Atalji flying high" while party leaders are overtly and covertly undermining each other. But he won't be able to ignore it when he returns to India. The first thing he will have to do then is to attend to the crisis in his party. And this will require the sort of deft positioning Vajpayee is so good at.
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