So, What's Behind The Mask?

The Govindacharya-Vajpayee tussle over 'words' reflects a deeper malaise in the party
So, What's Behind The Mask?

 "As for Atal Behari Vajpayee, he is not a power within the organisation, he is only the mask for the party. And his importance in the organisational affairs of the BJP and its internal politics is akin to that of a mask in a play."
 "Advani is the real power in the BJP. Whomsoever be the president of the party, the BJP will be run by him and his decision will be final."
 "I am the sole representative of the RSS in the BJP."

BJP general secretary K.N. Govindacharya allegedly made these remarks to British diplomats in September. The Punjab Kesri reported it on October 6 under the byline of Bhanu Pratap Shukla, ex-editor of pro-RSS Panchajanya. Govindacharya admitted to the conversation but says he was "quoted out of context" and denies having used words like "mask".

FORGET the quibble over the words used, the remarks are those of a powerful organisational man, betraying impatience with the 'liberal' mass leader, whom the BJP banks on to win over people not particularly committed to its ideology. But the controversy Govindacharya's remarks spawned reflects a deeper malaise.

For those who thought that the problems accompanying the transition of the BJP from a cadre-based party to one with mass appeal would also be transitory, the events of the past fortnight have come as a rude shock. Vajpayee has reacted strongly to the statements attributed to Govindacharya. And for those who believed that the entire issue was a load of theoretical claptrap, there is the realisation that this transition has created a situation where the powers-that-be seem set on a collision course with its "mass leader" and prime ministerial candidate.

It is in this context that the clash of the individuals within the BJP, the disdain with which the star vote-catcher of the BJP is viewed by a section of his own party and the differences between the leadership, need to be seen.

Vajpayee first made public his sense of hurt and disbelief at a function to mark the release of a book authored by senior party leader Vijayaraje Scindia in Delhi on October 13. "I am no longer even the face of the BJP, I am now only its mask," he said, even as top BJP and RSS worthies, including Advani, sat, impassive and immobile, behind him on the podium. The next day, at the BJP national youth convention, Vajpayee in reply to a question, refused to "either con-firm or deny" that he had shot off a letter to Advani and Govindacharya. He hasn't said much after that.

Sources claim that Vajpayee has been expressing his ire to family members and associates. But it is a telling fact that apart from Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a long-time Vajpayee admirer, who "severely condemned" any attempt to insult the party's "biggest leader", no senior leader has publicly come out against Govindacharya. That is not surprising considering the fact that almost the entire senior leadership of the BJP now comprises those who have risen to the top in the Advani years. And though Advani has driven home the point that Vajpayee is an invaluable asset and needs to be shown the respect due to him, some of them have had difficulties with, in the words of a BJP general secretary, the "sensitive, temperamental Atalji".

One senior BJP leader spoke on the controversy but on condition of anonymity: "The problem is not very difficult to fathom. Here is a man who for all his adult life has been associated with the BJP in its various avatars. I remember a time in the Jan Sangh when we attracted sizeable crowds only when he was scheduled to speak. The BJP always had a strong organisation and was backed up by the disciplined Sangh cadre, but there were no major clashes because it was a small party with a committed support-base and Vajpayee to attract the mass support as best as he could. But with the phenomenal rise of the party in the '80s and '90s under Advani, the organisation has grown and its stars have become more powerful."

According to this veteran leader, "the moderate Vajpayee was always the odd-man-in, but Advani realised that even with a manifold increase in the support-base of the party, Vajpayee was still the only leader with pan-Indian appeal. And because he has always been an integral part of the BJP, whatever his differences, even his popularity had grown correspondingly. In fact, the RSS would have been very happy to have had Advani in place of Vajpayee till the '90s but Advani rejected this outright and announced Vajpayee as the BJP's candidate for PM a couple of years ago. The problem is that while publicly his proteges have accepted this, they do have a natural bias against Vajpayee which comes out in private. And whatever the truth of what Govindacharya did or did not say to the diplomats, it was meant to be a private conversation."

 Vajpayee, however, is unlikely to find much solace in this. Sources say that he has raised the matter with Advani and did mount pressure for some sort of action. He may not have strong organisational support but, according to aides, his appeal for the rank and file in a way bypasses the party organisation. Also, he is a mass leader and if he needs the party, the party needs him equally. Anyway, it is as much his party as anybody else's and every state unit has his diehard fans." On the other hand, BJP spokesman K.L. Sharma announced on October 16 that "no letter had been written by Vajpayee on this issue to the party president." Govindacharya, too, told Outlook: "I have received no letter."

GOVINDACHARYA met Advani to explain his side of it, but is yet to meet Vajpayee. Sources claim Vajpayee rebuffed Govindacharya's attempt to get in touch. But it is also clear that Advani is in no mood to bail out Govindacharya completely, despite his intriguing public silence. With the November BJP plenary session postponed and Advani being asked to continue as party president in view of "impending mid-term polls", Advani has enough on his plate.

Also, Advani himself has a tenuous hold on the party presidentship (whether by choice or not), though his supporters pooh-pooh the suggestion that this will figure in his calculations and affirm that a "suitable role" will be found for him. In fact, Advani and the RSS realise that Vajpayee is its best bet if the BJP is to come to power and the two party heavyweights do share a personal rapport going back a long way. Then there is the fact that if Hindutva is to be flogged in certain parts of the country, the liberal face of the BJP is equally essential to prevent it being painted in one colour.

As it is, the Advani camp is making the pitch that he is continuing as president against his own wishes. Khushabhau Thakre, the man tipped to take over, says Advani "has ruled out amending the party constitution to enable him to seek a third consecutive term despite the pleas of supporters who admire him for having built the party into a major political force in the country".

Sources add that to prevent any "misconception" about Advani's intention—an obvious reference to Vajpayee and M.M. Joshi—an idea had been mooted to declare Thakre president in November, though he will take over only in February-March 1998 or after mid-term polls, whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, sources close to Govindacharya say he has been asked to adopt a conciliatory tone and keep a low-profile for a while. As was evident from his statement in Haridwar on October 15, where he is reported to have said that Vajpayee is a father-figure and that there can be no comparison "between us".

Earlier, he had told Outlook: "Those who have listened in on the conversation and misquoted me obviously have a definite agenda to create problems within the party." Others feel that he should have been more aggressive and asked the party to "probe the conspiracy to defame the party" by a pro-Joshi journalist who has even been critical of Advani, but did not for several reasons. For one, Advani and RSS leaders had a word with Govindacharya; and his confidence is not as high as it was two-three years ago, since when he has been a "victim of jealousy and dragged into sordid controversies." But even the RSS is perhaps not too happy with their favourite son's indiscretion. Some believe he was being too clever by half in selling the line that there is nothing to fear from the BJP coming to power.

Speculation is rife that Joshi, annoyed at references made to him in the conversation, may also seek action against Govindacharya. Though Vajpayee is not known to be particularly vindictive, the fact that he even reacted a little was taken very seriously. And considered evidence of his anguish.

Considering the power equations in the BJP at present however, Govindacharya's position is still quite strong. Vajpayee, having made clear his displeasure, has left for a 10-day foreign trip and the party is playing down other murmurs. But sources feel that some may turn the heat on Govindacharya in the long run, especially if the BJP comes to power. And that he may have to be satisfied with the post of general secretary, organisation, when Thakre takes over as president. Earlier there was a move to revive the powerful post of organising secretary for him which may not happen now.

But for Advani, it is an awkward position. Govindacharya is not the only senior leader who has had a run-in with Vajpayee. Pramod Mahajan did seem to have some trouble with Vajpayee's attitude towards the short-lived allegations of favouritism party MP from Nagpur B.L. Purohit made against him. Recently, Vajpayee was miffed over Kalyan Singh's attitude towards the alliance with the BSP so painstakingly negotiated by him. Then again, Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan had, along with other BJP MPs, voted against the government on the Insurance Bill despite Vajpayee's assurance to the contrary.

While matters have usually died down in such cases, in the Govindacharya-Vajpayee equation, the niggling tensions have exhibited a persistence. But the incident which best portrays the genesis of this controversy is this: while all the other BJP office-bearers regularly meet and brief the party's PM-in-waiting, Govindacharya seldom does so. He has valid reasons—he was sent by the RSS to clean up the BJP but how can he if he becomes part of the internal power equations that exist in all political parties? And it's the RSS will decide his role and position. But for the Vajpayee camp this is more proof of his alleged "arrogance". Highlighting the contradictory impulses of party strongmen and mass leaders of a BJP-in-transition.

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