IN a party that wears its discipline on its sleeve, they are out of line. When months of open infighting led to the recent assault and stripping of a Cabinet minister, an irritated BJP high command finally decided to crack the whip. For, much to the BJP's embarrassment, the unsavoury drama in its Gujarat unit had coincided with A.B. Vajpayee's ascension at the Centre. And so, the message state leaders brought back from a central leadership still basking in the afterglow of a brief, image-boosting fling with power was clear: anti-party activities would not be tolerated.
"For acts of indiscipline, ministers will be dropped, party workers will be expelled. This is the spirit now," says state party chief Kashiram Rana. Apart from the rap on the knuckles, the high command has delivered a set of commandments to bring calm to its Gujarat unit. First, Chief Minister Suresh Mehta will stay. Second, stern action is to be taken against those involved in the assault on state minister Atmaram Patel, and those involved in ensuring that many party candidates were defeated in the elections. (Dissident leader Shankersinh Vaghela and his supporters had lost, and the BJP tally had shrunk to 16 out of 26 seats.) Third, and most crucial, the high command sought the immediate dissolution of the Mahagujarat Asmita Manch.
The manch, floated within the party by Vaghela after Patel was assaulted at the end of a May 20 meeting felicitating Vajpayee, was dissolved following Delhi's demand. A minister opposed to Vaghela said the general consensus in Delhi was to "fix" him. "It is a do or die situation for the BJP, and the biggest impediment must be removed," says the minister, referring to Vaghela.
The missiles remain in motion and many state leaders privately castigate the leadership for allowing such a crisis to fester for so long. Despite Delhi's tough talk, the picture stays diffused. In Gandhinagar, Chief Minister Mehta says Delhi has given him a "free hand" and hints at early action. Those opposed to Mehta, who is seen as close to Vaghela and Rana, don't acknowledge Mehta's special powers. Talk of three ministers being dropped, they say, is being spread by a section of the press. "We eradicated the land, education and adulteration mafias in Gujarat. In return for honesty, we are being targeted," says Jaspal Singh, Minister of State for Food & Civil Supplies. Singh, who was divested of his independent charge in December, is also referring to Revenue Minister Ashok Bhatt and Education Minister Nalin Bhatt. The trio is on the hit-list of the dissident camp opposed to ex-chief minister Keshubhai Patel.
After allowing battles to rage till the elections, Delhi has now stepped in, issuing fiats and sending emissaries—K.L. Sharma and Kushabhau Thakre—to assess the situation. "The party is divided and its image is worsening, I can't deny that. Delayed action led to all this. Now, no one will be forgiven. The activities of these Hajurias and Khajurias won't be tolerated anymore," says Rana. The two factions are the kind of jest the Gujarat BJP has reduced itself to. Vaghela supporters derive the name 'Khajurias' from their association with the dissident leader's 'Khajuraho coup' last September, which felled Keshubhai Patel's government. Hajurias (or 'yesmen') are supporters of Keshubhai, who has the backing of Gujarat's strong RSS lobby.
The two warring groups have divided the BJP so much that its image is on a dangerous downslide. "Never in Gujarat's history have we witnessed such horrible scenes. They are an ugly picture of groupism," says state Congress chief Prabodh Rawal. Like others, he feels the BJP has surpassed even the Congress. "Sure, veterans have been criticised in my party, but in the BJP, leaders are attacked barbarically. Dissenting Congress leaders can still sit together; in the BJP they can't be brought into the same room," says Rawal, who feels the stage is getting set for a Congress comeback.
History has shown that the predominantly middle class and business-oriented Gujarati electorate is also unforgiving. In 1973, the late Chimanbhai Patel had rebelled, pulling down Ghanshyam Oza's government. It took Chimanbhai 16 years to return to power. The final nail came when he broke his old moorings again and moved with his people to the Congress. The verdict was clear in the 1995 assembly polls: the Congress got only 45 seats while the BJP bagged 121 in a house of 182. "Today the people are angry, tomorrow they could go against us if such indisci-pline is unchecked," says Keshubhai, drawing a parallel between Chimanbhai's act and Vaghela's rebellion which forced a change in government. "Gujarat's people are unforgiving, as the supporters of those who went to Khajuraho have found. All of them lost in the Lok Sabha elections."
Vaghela and his men impute their defeat to the RSS lobby within the BJP. They cite a poll ad that started with 'Shahabuddin is acceptable, Amirchand is not' and went on to list constituencies where BJP candidates should be defeated. Vaghela alleges that RSS strongman Narendra Modi, who is pro-Keshubhai, continued meddling despite being removed from state affairs. "He behaved like a super-chief minister. Now his people are doing his bidding," says Vaghela.
Modi's key man in Gujarat is Pravin Togadia, surgeon and state VHP general secretary, who insists the RSS can't be accused of getting BJP candidates defeated. Some sadhus were angry with Vaghela because he spoke against them and that doesn't indict the VHP and RSS, he argues.
Says Togadia: "The BJP's progress has been through the dedication of its workers since the '60s. Their efforts received momentum with Hindutva. What you see now is the angry reaction of the electorate and party workers to the Khajuraho culture. Gujarat doesn't tolerate Aya Ram Gaya Rams." Angering the saffron brotherhood here exacts a heavy toll, as it's stronger here than most other states. The VHP claims it has a following in 10,000 of the 18,000 villages and workers samitis in 4,125 villages—which makes this its best state unit.
The divisions are so sharp that some leaders still privately justify the incident where some 'Khajuria' ministers were attacked. Atmaram Patel was badly beaten and stripped—his dhoti shredded, he had to be covered with a party banner. "Like in Ayodhya, where people took away pieces of brick from the broken mosque, here they took pieces of his dhoti. It was the people's anger," says a senior BJP leader.
Vaghela wants the ouster of Ashok Bhatt, who he names as the guilty man. Counters Bhatt: "He blamed three different people in one week, the last was me. His demand that I should be out is an old one. It would serve the interests of builders. He's guilty of gross indiscipline. He should be removed."
Who should go, or whether it will solve the problem, is something the BJP is finding difficult to answer. Right now, all are seeking refuge in cussedness or cliches.