January 20, 2020
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All Decks Cleared For This Fight

Is the Sun TV affair the latest passage of play in the rivalry between Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh?

All Decks Cleared For This Fight
Illustration by Saahil
All Decks Cleared For This Fight

Astrologers have long played a stellar role in the life of Union home minister Rajnath Singh. One of them, it was said, had predicted he would be back as president of the BJP before the 2014 general elections. He was. One of them even said that if the BJP won, Rajnath would be...(never mind, he would not). So, just why the official No. 2 in Narendra Modi’s minimum government has suddenly turned his gaze away from the stars to Sun no one knows, but the hot money in the capital is that a nice little squabble is building up again between him and the unofficial No. 2, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who also holds the I&B portfolio, over the denial of security clearance to the Chennai-based TV network owned by the Marans.

Actually, the wily Thakur leader from Uttar Pradesh, a former chief minister of India’s most populous state, has pretty much been in the news from the earliest days of Modi Sarkar. First, word got around that, despite his seniority, the PM had not allowed him the luxury of choosing his own private secretary. Then, before the BJP government could celebrate its first 100 days in power, the Prime Minister’s Office and the BJP president had to both issue certificates of good conduct within hours after bazaar gossip that Rajnath’s politician-son Pankaj was involved in financial misconduct and that the premier had pulled up Rajnath, made it to the front pages of the capital’s newpapers. A Calcutta newspaper even reported that Rajnath had told Modi and RSS leaders that a ‘senior cabinet colleague’ had been planting stories against him.

Things have been slightly more settled for Rajnath since then and there’s a feeling that the row over his son actually helped the home minister cement his place in the pecking order. He has been holding cabinet meetings in Modi’s absence and speaking magisterially with the deep baritone he possesses. He has been making RSS-friendly noises, like urging the Border Security Force to put an end to smuggling of cows to Bangladesh so that people there are starved of beef. He was first off the block to ask why Maharana Pratap should not be accorded the same status as Akbar ‘the Great’ in school textbooks. And, of course, his ministry hit global headlines by taking on Greenpeace.

But the Sun TV issue, coming just days after the pradhan sevak reportedly confirmed to ‘news traders’ at a dinner hosted at Jaitley’s residence that Rajnath was indeed the real No. 2, puts a different spin on matters.

The cancellation of licences of 4,470 foreign-funded NGOs last week is also being laid at Rajnath Singh’s door.

Make no mistake. Rajnath Singh has long been an RSS pet, which is why he got to replace Nitin Gadkari as BJP president before the 2014 elections till he had to make way for Amit Shah after the victory. And strangely, despite his proximity to Nagpur, Rajnath is perceived to be friendly with industrialists. Which is why eyebrows are shooting up over the Sun TV affair. Just why is he making a big deal over ‘security clearance’ to a large, established, profitable, stockmarket-listed TV network, causing embarrassment to a government that is trying to paint itself as ‘business-friendly’? Is he trying to get back at somebody in the government? Is he sending out a signal to somebody else? Is he paving the way for something else? Or is he doing all of that? And if so, why?

Read in conjunction with the questionable arrest by Delhi police (who come under the Union home ministry) of the law minister in Arvind Kejriwal’s ministry, for possessing a ‘fake deg­ree certificate’, the laundry list of questions against Rajnath’s name is only growing longer. Is Rajnath doing this on his own or is he carrying out somebody’s mandate?

Whatever it is, those who know Rajnath say he wouldn’t be doing this without an objective in mind. “He is a Thakur who means business,” says a senior RSS functionary from UP who has known Rajnath for three decades. “He is a hard taskmaster.” So, wit­hin hours of the ghastly ambush on the army in Manipur that left 18 soldiers dead, Rajnath convened a meeting in Modi’s absence (he was away in Dhaka). It was attended by defence minister Manohar Parrikar. Rajnath reportedly said, possibly apocryphally: “Don’t come to me if you’re hit by a bullet. Come to me after you have hit a few bullets.” Despite the all-pervasive PMO, and a super active NSA, Rajnath’s aides say their man has earned his place.

The cancellation of licenses of 4,470 foreign-funded NGOs last week is also being placed at Rajnath’s door to suggest that he is carrying out the Sangh parivar’s ‘desi’ agenda with greater focus and dedication than others in Modi Sarkar. No prizes for guessing who the others are.

Subramanian Swamy, the maverick BJP leader, is bemused by the fight for the second slot in the cabinet. “I will not say anything as both ministers (Rajnath and Jaitley) are BJP leaders,” he laughs. But another senior BJP ideologue, who is well conversant with Tamil Nadu politics, says the right question to be asked is: Why has Narendra Modi allowed the Sun TV issue to be thrashed around in the public domain? Jaitley and Rajnath, he says, touch base with each other frequently, many times a week. They could sort it out amicably, without having to create the unnecessary paperwork that gives fodder to the media.

“The fact that there are other TV networks whose owners are in a soup similar to the Marans—like the Ambanis (gas and telecom), Aditya Birla (coal), Subrata Roy (financial services), Subash Chandra (media), Naveen Jindal (coal), Y.S. Jagan­mohan Reddy (finance)—and that their networks are merrily broadcasting without the home ministry asking the I&B ministry questions over ‘security clearance’, suggests that there is more to the kerfuffle raised by Rajnath than meets the eye,” says a Chennai-based media analyst.

Coming as it does on the heels of the sale of Spicejet by the Sun TV group to its original owner, Ajay Singh, the row over the revocation of Sun TV’s licence brings the turf war between Rajnath and Jaitley to centrestage. Reports that the I&B ministry wants MHA to spell out the reasons so that it can produce it in a court of law should the matter reach there, or that the home ministry has not replied to the I&B for 45 days or that it would have no problems with Sun TV licences if there was a change of ‘ownership’, have only served to allow tongues to wag that there cannot be two winners in this cabinet battle at the end of it all. At least not for too long.

By Mihir Srivastava with Pritam Sengupta

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