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There is an OBC in the chair in Bhopal. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the new CM of Madhya Pradesh, is technically a 'backward'. But with none of the flamboyance and charisma that made Uma Bharati one of the most spectacular performers of the Hindu right. He is dull, stable and can easily be ignored in a room full of saffron leaders. Certainly, easy for the party high command to handle. But he is no natural born leader and crowd-puller like Uma Bharati.
The sanyasin may be cornered following her suspension from the BJP. "Usko mara aur rone bhi nahin diya (they beat her and didn't even let her cry)," says K. Govindacharya. But hard as it may try, the BJP will discover that it is not easy to reduce someone like Uma Bharati to a cipher. The manner in which she has hit the streets in the course of her padayatra to Ayodhya is evidence of her energy and resolve. "I am the real BJP," she thunders. "I want to warn Atal and Advani that the aircraft has been hijacked by a gang."
This could well be Uma's final exit from the BJP. In a sense, it marks the changing face of a party that will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary. K. Govindacharya and Uma were the original pair that planned and rode on Advani's rath in the early '90s. Govind, the brain behind the social engineering project designed to counter Mandal, and Uma, the best campaigner that the saffron party produced, are now outsiders in a BJP being run by new-age netas like Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan.
Although Uma appears to have suddenly softened her stand, this is not in order to crawl back into the party but to increase sympathy for herself. Sources close to her say she has little hopes of returning to the BJP, where she knows she will have to work on terms dictated by others. Says one of her close advisors, "For a year now, it's been clear that she has two choices. Gradual political annihilation if she submits to the will of those who manage things in Delhi. Or else she must be prepared to face the music when she is thrown into the wilderness."
The plan, sources say, is to exploit the faultlines within the larger Sangh parivar. She is headed to Ayodhya not because she believes that this is the time to raise the Ram temple issue. But to harp on an ideological core and stress that the party has lost it. Amidst slogans like "Sajao thali, karo aarti/ aati hain Uma Bharati", she is currently ploughing her path through MP. The threat of disciplinary action may have kept BJP workers away from the yatra but Bajrang Dal and VHP activists are making up their numbers.
Yet the resignation of former Union minister Prahlad Patel from the party (he too was suspended with Uma) can be a pointer of things to come. Even as he sent in his resignation and continued with Uma's padayatra, Patel said: "It is better to be out of the party and speak about it rather than remain inside and cause it harm." Another close sympathiser says: "There is a simmering in the RSS too. Many believe that the true nationalist moorings of the Sangh, such as swadeshi, swaraj and swabhimaan are being lost. If not today, tomorrow she can be a force who will get their backing."
It is not clear how far the Uma tactic of trying to divide the RSS will succeed. Being a true child of the parivar, she undoubtedly has sympathisers. But at a time of crisis for both the BJP and RSS it is debatable whether many of them will be ready to stick their necks out for her.
A footnote to the Uma story is the partnership between old foes Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan. The 'oust Uma' campaign was smartly orchestrated in Bhopal by two of the cleverest minds in the BJP. The two appear to have taken it upon themselves to manage the party in the face of the paralysis of the old guard, A.B. Vajpayee and L. K. Advani.
This tactic appears to have paid off. Pleased to see known rivals working together, the RSS is said to be shedding its misgivings about Mahajan. The manner in which he has put his head down and just gone about working for the party has impressed the Sangh old-timers. Jaitley never had an image problem vis-a-vis the Sangh but was hamstrung that so many of his colleagues had reservations about him. Still, his success rate in managing campaigns has certainly earned him brownie points. Besides, Jaitley's links in the media and industry make him a strong contender for the presidentship. Although Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj were seen as the frontrunners, Jaitley and Mahajan too have now entered the fray.
But there is a dummy card being played by some of the second-rung. Aware that they may not immediately succeed Advani, some are suggesting that Venkaiah Naidu be given charge of the party for a year, after which the "real" leader would be picked. By mid-December the picture should become clearer. What's certain is that Uma Bharati will not join the BJP's year-end bash in Mumbai when Advani is slated to step down from the presidentship, truly signalling the passing of an era.
Saba Naqvi Bhaumik with K.S. Shaini in Bhopal