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Faltering On The Home Stretch

The Gujarat crisis could have wider repercussions for the BJP

Faltering On The Home Stretch

THIS could prove to be the Bharatiya Janata Party's biggest crisis ever. The Gujarat tangle has shown that public display of personal ambition and defiance are no longer taboo in a party that has traditionally prided, and sold, itself on its discipline. 7'he rebellion by 47 party MLA's and the consequent sacrifice of Keshubhai Patel as chief minister after a face-saving 'victory' in the vote of confidence in the State Assembly on October 7 and rehabilitation of the rebels are bound to have an impact on the party's national campaign to capture the next Lok Sabha.

That the crisis is far from over is evident from the fact that the party's central board and office-bearers remained huddled in confabulations almost throughout October 8. Even in the evening that day there were signs that about 20 of Patel's supporters had not taken very kindly to the humiliation of their leader.

The salvage operation, led by the party's senior most leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and assisted by Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and party general secretaries Pramod Mahajan and K.L. Sharma, ended successfully after the rebel leader, MP, Shankersinh Vaghela, finally made a brief statement in the Gandhinagar circuit house annexe at 9.30 am that all 47 rebels would vote for the confidence motion. It couldn't have been cut finer as the crucial vote was scheduled for 11 am.

Nobody was really fooled by the camaraderie exhibited after the announcement. It was an almost open secret that Vaghela had agreed to support the chief minister's confidence motion only after Vajpayee showed him a copy of Patel's resignation as leader of the legislature Party, paving the way for the election of a new leader. Kashiram Rana was emerging as the hot favourite. BJP President L.K. Advani himself came in for sharp criticism for his handling of the Gujarat imbroglio, and according to insiders was seriously contemplating resigning from his post. Finally, it was Vajpayee who prevailed upon him not to take the drastic step.

In the final reckoning, the BJP managed to ensure that it continued to rule Gujarat. But the party emerged bloody-nosed. The damage control exercise did save the split in the party by a hair's breadth, but the BJP'S image took a serious beating. So much so that suddenly there is an element of uncertainty in the BJP'S carefully nourished dream to rule the Centre when the country goes to polls in about six months.

What has aggravated the problem is that the dissidence virus has also affected the BJP's State organisation in Madhya Pradesh and is threatening to strike its Uttar Pradesh Delhi units. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi together account for 132 Lok Sabha seats; and the party had won 88 of its total 119 Lok Sabha seats from these states.

No wonder there are fears within the party that the Gujarat flashpoint and the success of the rebels in forcing a leadership change in the state could inspire dissidence elsewhere. Said a National Council member of the party: "The compromise in Gujarat will prove costly. Dissidents might strike elsewhere as they feel bolstered by the centre's compromise." Advani agreed, "The Gujarat episode calls for introspection."

The Gujarat crisis was really a disaster waiting to happen. In a departure from the party's policy in the Delhi Assembly polls, the BJP central leadership barred MLA's from staking claim to the Gujarat chief ministership after it was estimated that 80 of its 121 MLAS would back Vaghela. And once Patel was securely in place, state party general secretary Narendra Modi started systematically weeding out Vaghela supporters from all important posts. The last straw came on September 4 when the chief minister announced the chiefs of 42 government boards and corporations, totally ignoring the Vaghela camp.

Vaghela's timing was opportune. The rebels' strength had already dwindled from 80 to 47 and it was now or never. According to sources in the BJP, the central leadership had learnt from "other channels" that a rebellion was brewing. But Modi, the designated eye and ear in Gujarat, assured the leadership that there was no cause of panic and no more than12 legislatures were willing to "sink or swim" with Vaghela.

Modi also dismissed reports about Vaghela having established a channel with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and state Congress leader Amarsinh Chowdhary for the support of 45 Congress MI.AS in case he was invited to form a government. Modi after resigned but the damage was done.

The BJP leaders in New Delhi woke up to the gravity of the situation only after Vaghela's supporters were safely ensconced in Khajuraho. Most central leaders are convinced that Vaghela had a tacit understanding with the Congress, and the huge expenses in sending the MLAS on a chartered flight and providing them five-star hospitality are an indication of the money power behind Vaghela.

However, the rebel leader denies any Congress role in the crisis. "'The Congress had no hand in whatever happened," he said minutes before leaving Ahmedabad for New Delhi after the confidence vote. "There were no efforts on their part. They cannot just think of toppling the BJP government." It was a different matter that Advani had just issued a statement in the Capital pointedly referring to the 'ecstasy' in Congress circles when the Gujarat crisis was at its peak.

BJP analysts have zeroed in on one interesting aspect of the rebellion. Out of the 47 rebels, only 11 have RSS-BJP backgrounds. The remaining 36 have been associated with the party only for a couple of years. Madhya Pradesh, too, has a large number of 'outsiders', mainly with a socialist background. In Bihar, the state legislature party chief Yashwant Sinha has been a non-RSS and non-BJP man throughout and is yet to build a rapport with the party rank and file.

And in Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh is beginning to resemble Modi and often issues unilateral statements completely at variance with the central leadership.

"The party needs to set up more communication channels for objective feedback instead of having to depend on one person's assessment," says a BJP leader. It is believed that a senior leader will be put in charge of only one major state. The party has already entrusted Madhya Pradesh to Kushabhao Thakre, Gujarat to K.L.Sharma and Maharashtra to Pramod Mahajan.

MORE importantly, as senior leader Jaswant Singh admitted, "The Gujarat crisis indicates a failure of the BJP leadership. It has failed to respond in time." A confession that several senior leaders make privately.

In fact, Vaghela himself made no bones about the fact that Advani had exposed his shortcomings as party president. "I have every confidence in Atal Behari Vajpayee. I have placed my demands before him," said Vaghela, after the Patel government had won the vote of confidence. He would not even mention Advani while referring to his confidence in the central leaders, which explains why Advani maintained a low profile throughout the crisis.

It is undoubtedly Vajpayee who emerged as the elder statesman of the all'. Advani had to request Vajpayee to discuss with the rebels the leadership's patch-up formula. 'The party chief had realised by then that he had erred in not trying to assuage the sentiments of party cadres assembled under the Anyway Nivaran Samiti (Fight Injustice Committee) banner on September 25.The meeting had been organised by former Ahmedabad mayor Mukul Shah and former city BJP chief Natwar Lal Patel. Said Patel: "I am surprised that Advani chose to ignore our grievances throughout. You cannot solve party problems by sweeping them beneath the carpet."

So, while former BJP president M.M. Joshi said confidently, "the Gujarat development will not create any problem for Advani to have a second term to lead the party in the next general elections," he missed the point that position and authority do not always go together. With general elections just around the corner, it is a lesson the party may learn the hard way.

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