That the BJP is taking hard knocks in its erstwhile bastions is now clear even to its most ardent supporters. But while the focus has been on the disarray in the party's UP unit, new eruptions of discontent and factionalism are being reported from Rajasthan and Gujarat as well.
In fact, the symbolism of what can only be called the "three (old) men in a party" phenomenon - 78-year-old Ram Prakash Gupta, Uttar Pradesh CM; 77-year-old Keshubhai Patel, his counterpart in Gujarat; and the newly-elected Rajasthan BJP president Bhanwar Lal Sharma, 76 - is a perfect illustration of the divisions within. There's a pattern to all of them. The younger, and perhaps more popular, leaders have been sidelined in the party by the entrenched old guard. And the party workers, who now have to muster support under relative lightweights, are a demoralised lot.
For the BJP brass, the dilemma is acute. The leadership is not unaware of the fact that these leaders are seen as over the hill, but their options are severely limited by the opposition from prominent state leaders to any name but that of a "senior" (read old) leader with no mass base to call his own. While this is particularly true of UP and Rajasthan, in Gujarat the situation is different. Here the fight seems to be over the spoils of power and succession, with the Vaghela revolt providing both the backdrop and the referral point for the political jostling.
BJP general secretary Narendra Modi offers his stock quote: "The media focuses on the few negatives at the cost of the many positives. There are no problems in the states that cannot be solved by a group of senior leaders sitting and thrashing things out." But the ground situation is very different.
And Modi's fighting words find little echo in UP, where, with the results of a particularly violent panchayat polls awaited, the CM's fate is once again hanging by a slender thread. Depending on how the BJP fares, M/s Rajnath Singh, Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra and a whole crop of younger OBC leaders are preparing to push for a change, while Gupta himself hopes to stay put.
In Gujarat, the jinx is back as events of the past fortnight snowballed into a major controversy. Keshubhai was caught in a bind when Purshottam Solanki, a minister in his cabinet, who stood indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for his role in the Mumbai riots and has even been jailed under TADA, led a delegation demanding the release of several criminals arrested by the police. That his brother, Bharat Solanki, and four others were arrested for allegedly attempting to kill cable operator Samir Shah was lost on nobody.
Damned if he did and damned if he did not, as far as Keshubhai was concerned. There was no way his government could openly endorse the criminalisation of politics. Yet, he couldn't turn Solanki down. For, after Vaghela quit the party, the party has relied largely on Solanki to garner the votes of the politically-empowered Kolis, a Dalit community, in Saurashtra. Then again he had helped Bhavnagar MP R.S. Rana retain his seat for a third term and pushed him to the office of state president. With the support of a major chunk of mlas, he has the capacity to do a Vaghela and certainly fancies his chances in the succession race.
But what brought the crisis to a flashpoint was the rebellion of home and information minister Haren Pandya (he submitted his resignation as home minister - which was later rejected - claiming he was being pressurised to go easy on Solanki's brother). But the anti-Pandya camp insists he's merely deflecting attention from the "cable war" which involved not just Solanki's younger brother but also Pandya himself, who supports the entry of a major Gujarati newspaper chain into the cable business.
While sources close to Pandya insist that he was attempting to correct the party's increasing comfort level vis-a-vis criminalisation by taking a principled stand, critics ridicule his aadha isteefa (he offered to resign only one of the two departments he held) as a "drama" enacted to pre-empt the growing calls for his removal by the strong Sangh lobby in the state. "This is just his way of hitting back at a rival (Solanki) and using his connections with the media to bolster his image and emerge as a successor to Patel," says a critic.
There is a general feeling that the government stands so long as "criminal activities of people close to the BJP are brushed under the carpet", says a leader unhappy with the goings-on. Reports that the government may decide not to oppose the decision of an Ahmedabad court granting bail to Bharat Solanki has set tongues wagging on the nature of the "compromise" to save the government.
In Rajasthan, it is again a story of a party led by tired old men reluctant to make way, bringing to the surface the faction-ridden nature of the organisation in the state. At the recent party polls, the tussle was out in the open when B.L. Sharma found himself catapulted to head the state BJP.
Former CM Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and his strong support base in the state opposed the attempt by younger leaders to gain a say, by favouring a second term for the largely ineffective Gulab Chand Kataria. The younger leaders had Ghanshyam Tiwari as their candidate and the RSS men on deputation to the BJP, K.. Govindacharya and Ram Das Aggarwal, were also in favour of Tiwari. Conscious of the need to avoid a repeat of UP and Gujarat, Govindacharya has for long been in favour of preparing a second line of leadership in the state. Tiwari himself appeared set for a victory in the event of a contest, but that there would not be a contest was hardly in doubt once Govindacharya himself backtracked, emphasising the "spirit of democracy" over "mere democratic procedure" (like elections). A poll would have meant a split down the middle.
Not all agreed. Former minister Devi Singh Bhati opposed this vehemently. "This is Congress culture, (leaving everything to the high command)," he said. In many ways a direct result of the "soft option" the BJP leadership took in UP by pulling Gupta out of the closet and installing him as CM, the intransigence of the powerful Shekhawat-led "old guard" put paid to such dissident voices.
And as it became clear that a consensus on either of the two main contenders was becoming well-nigh impossible, the compromise emerged in the shape of old-timer Bhanwar Lal Sharma. The "spirit" could be said to have dominated over "mere electoral procedure" to overrule the majority's choice, but it has laid the ground for continuing bickering within. Apart from setting wrong precedents. As things stand, the nasty jibes about the Congress is beginning to sound like a prophecy.