August 03, 2020
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Rancour In The Ranks

The party grapples with dissension and Congress-like groupism at various levels

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Rancour In The Ranks

BIHAR BJP leader and petitioner in the fodder scam case, Sarju Rai, was very angry. He is reported recently to have walked into the Patna party office and minced no words in criticising some of his party colleagues for their pathetic attempt to discredit him. Says a BJP office-bearer, who heard of what had transpired: "If I was in his place, I would have done more." The reason for Rai's ire: an allegation by the Bihar BJP leadership that Rai, one of the most respected leaders in the state, had fudged a taxi bill and in the process made a princely sum of Rs 80 for himself!

In a way, the incident is symbolic of what many in the BJP perceive is going wrong with a party once feted for its discipline and relative lack of groupism. At a time when it has emerged as a serious contender for power and when it should be preparing for a final assault, there's an easily discernible restiveness within its ranks. Mostly on account of personality clashes and factional disputes in most states where the BJP has a strong presence. It began with Shankersinh Vaghela's rebellion in Gujarat in 1995 and has been followed by the shenanigans of Messrs Madan Lal Khurana and Banwari Lal Purohit over the past two weeks.

Not only did Khurana not regain his gaddi after being discharged from the hawala case, even the third candidate formula was jettisoned in favour of Sahib Singh continuing as chief minister. So incensed was the former Delhi CM that he made a not-so-veiled attack on BJP president L.K. Advani. His resignation as party vice-president and his seeking time to think things over were a further indication of his anger at the BJP's central leadership. As for Sahib, the Khurana camp can only spew venom.

Purohit, the BJP MP from Nagpur, after making allegations of favouritism against general secretary Pramod Mahajan, seemingly backed down after a meeting with A.B. Vajpayee. The latter even announced that Purohit had expressed his regrets. But the MP soon made a statement denying this. The snub to Vajpayee, trying to play peacemaker, was clear. And reaffirmed when Pur-ohit sent in his resignation from the Lok Sabha, though to the party. Says Mahajan: "These incidents are unfortunate. The BJP will have to work out a mechanism to hear all sides in such cases, take a decision, implement it and ensure it's not rejected because it goes against particular interests." More than these revolts, it's the emergence of Congress-like camps and factions in the state units that is of more concern to the party, say senior leaders. "Festering wounds" is how a senior BJP leader describes this phenomenon.

In Bihar, BJP chief Ashwini Kumar has been pitted against senior leader Kailash Pati Mis-hra, leader of the Opposition Sushil Modi and even party general secretary Govindacharya for some time now. Sources in the Bihar unit claim that the Ashwini camp even attempted to win over cine star and Rajya Sabha member Shatrughan Sinha, but the latter declined to get involved in the factional politics of the state.

In Uttar Pradesh, former chief minister Kalyan Singh and his supporters felt mar-ginalised by the central leadership—beginning with its overruling Kalyan's objection against a tie-up with the BSP. But he has struck back with gusto. At a meeting of BJP MLAs on July 16 in Lucknow, the party's ministers in the Mayawati government came under attack from Kalyan supporters. The criticism against PWD minister Kalraj Mishra and urban development minister Lalji Tandon was particularly sharp. Though Kalyan remained silent throughout the meeting telling MLAs it was "their day to express their sentiments", observers say his tacit support to them was evident.

THE vaulting ambitions of the two BJP leaders has been worrying Kalyan and his supporters for a while now. At  another meeting at the residence of irrigation minister and Kalyan-loyalist Om Prakash Singh, the MLAs emphasised that the ministers were not coming to the party office, had no time for MLAs and even their schedule for the day was not available to them and other party workers. They also expressed their concern at the allegations of corruption against some BJP ministers. Kalyan has since raised these matters with the central leadership and reminded S.S. Bhandari, vice-president in-charge of UP, that when the alliance with the BSP was being hammered out, Vajpayee had promised him that the ministers would meet him once a fortnight and seek his guidance. He also expressed his displeasure at the performance of some ministers.

It was a victory of sorts for the Kalyan lobby when the central leadership accepted its demand for an independent panel to probe charges of graft and corruption against BJP ministers in UP. It re-established Kalyan's numero uno position in the state.

Rajasthan, on the other hand, presents a different set of problems. The towering personality and immense respect for chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has till now ensured that the feuding second rung has not indulged in too much bloodletting in public. But the signs were ominous when Shekhawat went abroad for a few weeks early this year for medical treatment and a major row erupted with senior leaders coming down heavily on deputy chief minister Hari Shanker Bhabra. So much so that Shekhawat was forced to emphasise from his hospital bed that it was he who was still in charge.

The reason, according to BJP sources, was that while Shekhawat himself can't be challenged, his effort to put a B team in place met with stiff resistance. Bhabra is seen as Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi's replacement as the senior Brahmin leader of the BJP. Similarly, attempts to project Narpat Singh Rajvi, Shekhawat's son-in-law, as the Rajput leader are being opposed by others with claims to that status.

Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have problems of their own. While in Gujarat, the BJP is still seething over Vaghela's "betrayal", former state president Kashiram Rana is increasingly peeved at his marginalisation. Former CMs Suresh Mehta and Keshubhai Patel, and powerful leader Dilip Parekh are distinct centres of power. In MP, the Kail-ash Joshi and Sunderlal Patwa camps are still wary of each other. Even in Maharashtra, rebels such as former Legislative Council member Madhu Deolekar and his group, though marginalised, have sought to target Mahajan against whom they had launched a campaign two years ago. 

A section of the BJP believes that while the perks and paraphernalia of power may be the root cause of the problems, the party's handling of the situation has also been inept. A senior party leader, however, points out that "in the case of Khurana and Kalyan Singh, the larger interests of the party to build new support bases and help maintain a cohesive social fabric can be the argument. After all, Sahib Singh can't be dismissed when he has committed no wrong and the BJP attempts to penetrate the Jat belt in UP-Delhi-Haryana-Rajasthan would suffer as a result. Similarly, Dalits have to be appropriated within the Hindu-tva fold in UP. But in all other cases, it's the leadership trying to keep all on board." 

Says Bhandari: "I admit our image hasn't improved. But the BJP is a growing, live organisation where there have been, are and will be clashes of aspirations. The central leadership takes the final decision and we try to accommodate everyone. Sometimes this may go wrong, just as sometimes important leaders get caught in these conflicts. Because a man has a cough or a cold, it doesn't mean he is dead."

Some leaders see hope in the fact that even overt 'rebellions' have not led either Khurana or Purohit to leave the party. All emphasise the BJP's prospects will not suffer because the Congress is in worse shape. But when asked specifically whether he was happy that those who revolted have promised to continue in the party, a senior leader says: "The BJP can't be converted into a dhobi ghat. Where you smash things around and then expect everyone to be happy you are not leaving."

As for the party president, Advani recently said the BJP was "aware of these problems and would deal with them effectively". The lessons from the BJP's Virar conclave where the Sangh parivar decided to work out mechanisms to check power struggles within the fold are yet to be learnt. But one point raised in Mumbai is being followed up: the need to hold special training camps for all levels of BJP leadership to prevent such scenarios. One such four-day camp is scheduled for August 29. Clash of ambitions within the party is likely to top the agenda. But it may have come a little late for the party which was once said to be different.

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