March 31, 2020
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Electric Chairs

In the BJP’s perennially dagger-drawn politics, Bihar was another opportunity for a mini revolt

Electric Chairs
Electric Chairs
  • Enough Already: The Sangh leadership, tired of Modi-Shah’s totalitarian ways, had egged on the revolt by the seniors
  • Go Home: The RSS doesn’t want a second term for Amit Shah, blames him for BJP junior rung’s attack on Bhagwat
  • Stay Cool: Modi must smoke the peace pipe with hostile groups, can’t afford policy hiccups or loss of Shah as party head


In BJP circles in Delhi, for the last 18 months or so, a common refrain has been, “Amit Shah delivers, whatever be the circumstances.” So last month when the BJP president promised there would be firecrackers in case the party lost in Bihar, he wasn’t seeing Diwali in a new light. The firecrackers did happen. So what if it wasn’t in Pakistan? Shah delivered on his poll promise of bangers with help from his own backyard; the marginalised old guard of the BJP.

For the Narendra Modi-bhakts in the BJP, the scathing letter from party veterans L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar, dem­anding acc­ountability for the Bihar debacle, was something that had been “expected for a long time”. Over a year after its formation, the margdarshak mandal (which includes two of the current dissenters, Advani and Joshi), many believe, was simply striking back for being sidelined by the new dispensation. The BJP’s young blood affirms, “They were waiting for a chance. The Bihar res­ults presented a good opportunity to pull the Modi-Shah combine down.”

But the November 10 letter can’t just be dismissed as elderly frustration over a purported loss of stature. After all, Advani and Joshi aren’t just former party presidents, they are leaders who built the party. Add to that mix Joshi’s well-known proximity to ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who many leaders believe had given its blessings to the dissent letter. Insiders confirm the rebellion strategy and the letter of dissent were drafted over three hours in the prese­nce of former BJP minister Arun Shourie at Joshi’s residence on Rai­sina Road. 

Clearly, the BJP’s senior citizens had carefully crafted their move. Post the Bihar results, MPs from Bihar had been openly voicing their anger against the national leadership’s caustic tone. Some even dared the party leadership to punish them for socialising with leaders from the opposition camp. State leaders who had been relegated to the sidelines in Bihar had started questioning Modi and Shah’s almost exaggerated personal investment in the state elections. Expectedly, the debacle became the best time to open a fresh power struggle within the party.

Insiders insist the power struggle is not against Supreme Leader Modi but against Amit Shah.

Considering that Bihar is the second state election after Delhi that the Modi-Shah duo has lost, party leaders admit the PM and his party president are on a weak wicket for the first time since their unch­allenged elevation in Delhi in May 2014. Insiders however add a word of caution, emphasising that the power struggle is not aimed at Narendra Modi—who established himself as Supreme Leader last summer—but his prodigy and understudy, Amit Shah.

Reports suggest the anti-Shah atmosphere is also convenient for the RSS leadership which has been miffed with Modi, and particularly Shah, for a while. Sangh sources confirm that the leadership has found Modi and Shah’s totalitarian ways a put-off and have often rued the lack of democracy and communication since Shah took over. As far back as July 2014, when Rajnath Singh resigned from the presidency to take up the Union home minister’s job, the RSS had made clear its reservations about two people from one state, Modi and Shah, heading the government and the party. But a compromise had to be reached given that Modi’s ast­ounding Lok Sabha performance left no room for the RSS to bargain.

The Sangh, sources confirmed to Outlook, “does not want Shah to be BJP president after January 2016 when his term ends. His attempt to whitewash the Bihar drubbing and an earlier attempt to fix the responsibi­lity of the loss on Sangh chief Mohan Bha­gwat has annoyed the RSS”. In such a sce­nario, the Sangh needed to hit out thr­ough a chosen few who had credence (and didn’t have anything to lose in the future). Which is why the dissent letter from the House of Seniors seemed a good bet.

What has set the RSS’s teeth on edge is the fact that junior rung leaders in the BJP had started pointing fingers at sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat. While publicly Shah himself had maintained that Bhagwat’s comments on reservation could not be described as the sole reason for the Bihar debacle, the Sangh leadership believes the junior lot were being instigated to put the RSS chief in the dock. Naturally, it then suits the RSS to stir up a rebellion against Shah while it still had the ammunition to strike a goal.

“Modi is India’s PM, he’s not representing a section of the country. Governance has to be on development with equity, not for sectarian identity, hatred.”
Prof Mohan Rao, Jawaharlal Nehru University

In the BJP’s messy and perennially dagger-drawn politics, where camps and sub-camps are always pitted against each other, the RSS is learning that it has to hone its political manoeuvres fast. Also, with a prime minister sil­ent on the beef ban and related killings, the RSS needed to shirk off the perception that it was protecting fringe elements. Then there was the matter of protecting its own chief from being targeted for the Bihar failure, as also to stem a possible neutering of its hold on the BJP.

The November 10 revolt then, sources confirm, was something that was not just brewing for long but was even stoked and fanned by the “superiors”. A confirmation of that was former BJP minister Arun Shourie’s open statements against the PM. In fact, the RSS had expressed its displeasure over the government’s lack of initiative in pursuing the Sangh agenda at the government-Sangh coordination meet held in Delhi a few months back. At the meet, sou­rces say, “the Sangh had told the PM that help for campaigning in Bihar would only come BJP’s way if it decided to acc­ommodate their agenda in its plans”.

By October-end, though, the Sangh bec­ame clear in its calculation of the imp­ending defeat for the BJP and decided to slowly withdraw and distance itself from the Bihar campaign. Sources confirm it was agreed that the RSS had to pull back also because Bihar was the first election ever when the Sangh leadership’s statements had had a political playing out as also electoral fallouts. To retain its lofty space and privilege, the Sangh needed a revolt to rear up. No wonder then that even as the Bihar results were announced, the BJP, aware of the many meetings of the dissident brigade, got into damage control mode.

The PM even walked the extra mile, visiting Advani on his birthday while Amit Shah had a one-on-one with Bhagwat himself. Even at the parliamentary board meeting held after the results, the party leadership demonstrated unity of thought and action, taking collective responsibility for the loss and literally absolving Modi and Shah of any obligation. By midnight of November 10, though, the statements of three former party presidents flaying the Advani-Joshi dissent letter were out, and the sludge in the party system had floated to the top.

“Modi must curb his arrogance, he needs to understand politics of a state. He can’t just make caustic statements and expect to get away with it.”
Shiv Visvanathan, Political scientist

This was particularly true since the party has a chequered history of div­isions. It’s common knowledge that Joshi has always been at loggerheads with Advani. Nitin Gadkari was known to be opposed to Rajnath Singh while the latter had been opposed to the elevation of Modi. Rajnath, known to be close to the RSS leadership, has wanted to free himself of Modi’s yoke for what seems like ages now. Advani, meanwhile, has publicly opposed Modi and Modi has openly defied Advani. Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley have held sway of opposite camps and Arun Shourie is rem­embered for his suggestion that the RSS must take over the party. Meanwhile, Amit Shah himself has not been the popular outsider in Delhi circles and Yashwant Sinha has not just been at the receiving end for a long, long time but has even openly criticised Advani in the past. What binds them together now, however, is a common dislike of the Modi-Shah combine.

So what are the options ahead for the PM and Shah? For one, Modi must seek a compromise and work out a solution with hostile groups. Why? Because Modi will at no cost want to lose out on Shah’s second term as BJP president. What’s more, the PM would not want grand policy decisions like the FDI concessions to lose their sheen when ann­ounced (like on November 10) to news of bickering within the party. For now, the dissent letter has done its damage. Especially since, for Modi, the letter came just days before his first-ever visit to the United Kingdom. Sources reveal that even though the PMO maintains the home-grown rebellion would not affect the trip, the­re’s growing unease in the office.

The PMO has been worried over the bad press the PM has been getting of late internationally and is fretful about possible public dissent at the PM’s Wembley address in London. Sources also confirmed that previously considered suggestions of a visit to either Oxford or Cambridge were ruled out after reports of possible protests at the two universities trickled in. Modi’s supporters believe the uprising within will die out quietly soon enough while the PM is busy with his England and other pending international tours.

Meanwhile, the BJP is safeguarding itself by shying away from a complete submission to the “whims of the elders”. Some leaders are even dividing their time between ann­ouncing their fandom for Modi while also raking up the India Shining defeat under A.B. Vajpayee. Perhaps as a deflecting tactic (something the BJP masters in) the party could invoke Vajpayee’s idea of political survival through his lines: “Haar nahi manoonga/ raar nayi thanoonga/ Kaal ke kapaal pe, likhta mitaata hoon/ Geet naya gaata hoon (I will not give up/ I will keep fighting/ I will write and erase what has been written on the forehead of time/ I will keep singing a new tune). New tunes certainly are the need of the hour.

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