If all goes as scripted, when the BJP’s national executive meeting in Goa ends, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi may come to head the party’s campaign committee for next year’s Lok Sabha elections. That will also put him in a better position to demand that he be made the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Sources confirmed to Outlook that party chief Rajnath Singh even offered to announce at the office-bearers’ meeting scheduled for June 7 that Modi will spearhead the election campaign.
According to insiders, it took Rajnath several days of work to build a consensus on elevating Modi. In informal meetings with office-bearers, Rajnath had proposed Modi’s name, only to run into opposition from some seniors. By June 5, however, Modi had totted up enough support. Two things helped: the BJP’s clean sweep of the byelections in Gujarat and also the JD(U) losing the Maharajganj byelection in Bihar, where NDA partner and Modi rival Nitish Kumar is chief minister. The blow to Nitish seemed the perfect retort to those who kept raising the Nitish flag to prevent Modi’s elevation. When Modi drove up to Rajnath’s residence on Ashoka Road, Delhi, he arrived like a hero, to the beating of drums and distribution of sweets. But the scene inside was nervy. Source say Modi asked Rajnath not to play “parallel politics to undermine my stature”. The reference was to L.K. Advani’s caveat of a few hours ago: the veteran leader, once Modi’s mentor, had told Rajnath just a few hours ago that if Modi were put in charge of the Lok Sabha campaign, another campaign committee for the 2013 assembly elections should be set up, headed by another leader. Both committees, Advani had demanded, should be announced together. By the day’s end, support for Modi poured in—leaders like Arun Jaitley praised Modi’s role in the Gujarat byelection—and Rajnath had made up his mind. The Rajnath-Modi meeting was only meant to suss out that the appointment would happen; an announcement was to be made at the Goa executive meeting.
In the now open Advani-Modi battle, this round has gone to Modi. Their tussle heightened last week. At a rally in Gwalior, Advani said Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s work was more commendable than Modi’s because Chouhan headed a “bimaru” state. Advani also said Chouhan’s humility reminded him of Atal Behari Vajpayee. He later said his statements were no more than an inspirational appeal to party workers. But a senior leader says, “It can’t be seen as just inspirational words...after all, the timing is suspect. Everyone knows the Goa executive is likely to see yet another demand from second- and third-rung leaders for Modi to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Advani is obviously saying Modi is not the only one: he was throwing in some competition for Modi—from himself and others.”
The RSS is keeping away from the BJP’s leadership tussle. It doesn’t like Modi’s brashness, but won’t oppose his elevation.
It was for the same reason, insiders say, Advani had proposed that former BJP chief Nitin Gadkari head the election management committee for the assembly polls due later this year. But Gadkari refused to be drawn in; he said he needed to concentrate on building Nagpur as his constituency for 2014. Advani’s attempt to pit Gadkari against Modi and also cosy up to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh via Gadkari came a cropper. Earlier, Advani had reportedly opposed including Modi on the party’s parliamentary board and even expressed reservations about appointing Modi’s lieutenant Amit Shah as general secretary. “The tussle is at its severest right now,” says a leader. “It’s going to be difficult for Advani to contest again from Gandhinagar. He needs to find himself an alternative seat. Chouhan may have to make arrangements for that in Madhya Pradesh.” Some attribute Sushma Swaraj’s support for Chouhan, too, to the seat issue: “She contests from Vidisha. Who do you think Sushma will support? Besides, Modi and she are both in the race to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.”
With the RSS distancing itself from the BJP’s own leadership crisis, the field is indeed open to all. “There’s a fresh battle for the top job being fought every single day—the BJP has too many prime ministerial aspirants and no one wants to drop out,” says a leader. “Advani, Modi, Sushma, Rajnath—and now Chouhan, for Advani has fuelled another ambition with his Gwalior statements.”
A solution can emerge only when the infighting stops. “Despite the statements from Advaniji about how much the party has given him and that he doesn’t want anything more, he has never said he’s not in the prime ministerial race. It’s the same with other leaders too,” says an insider. Neither Modi nor Advani has the complete backing of the RSS leadership in Nagpur. Advani has had a history of differences with the Sangh ever since his Jinnah comments; Modi, known to be brash, is seen more as a threat than an asset by Nagpur. Left to themselves, the RSS leadership would want a more accommodating leader than Modi to take charge of the BJP. In fact, a senior pracharak says, “The joke in Nagpur these days is that if Modi takes over party affairs, the Nagpur headquarters must start preparing for a shutdown.” That said, sources confirm that if the demand for Modi’s elevation comes from the rank and file, the Sangh shall give in and not oppose it.
While the going maybe good for Modi now, the opposition is yet to die out. Senior leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh, Sushma and Uma Bharati—all part of the Advani camp—will not back Modi. Rajnath and Jaitley, meanwhile, are said to nurse their own prime ministerial ambitions. Senior leaders say, “The move to make Modi the chief of the campaign committee could also be a clever way to quieten him in future. This elevation does not guarantee that he will be the face of the BJP in 2014. In an election year, Modi could well be told he must work towards winning the elections for the BJP and that in a post-election scenario he is not an acceptable candidate for the NDA.”
And if acceptability by the NDA partners were to be the criterion, the biggest challenge to Modi may come from Sushma. Says a leader close to the developments, “Sushmaji is far more acceptable to the NDA leaders than Modi. She has worked at the grassroot level and even has a strong relationship with other parties. Of late she has even managed to build bridges with the Sangh.” On this count, Rajnath and Jaitley may also prove strong.
“Modi knows there are many leaders eyeing the job he wants. He also knows that, while the cadre supports him, he faces huge opposition at the top level,” says a source. “It’s for this reason he told Rajnath that if his elevation had to be announced, there couldn’t be a more opportune time than now.” Modi will be looking to strengthen cadre support when he addresses a party workers’ convention on June 9. Advani is yet to confirm his participation at the convention. Reports suggest that a few other known faces from the party will skip the Goa executive to mark their displeasure over the recent developments.
While it will take the BJP more than just the national executive in Goa to sort out its internal issues, for Modi, it could well be the case of being second time lucky in Goa. After all, eleven years ago, in 2002, it was at another national executive held in Goa soon after the Gujarat riots that BJP leaders had collectively decided to not take any action against Modi for the Gujarat riots, making it easy for him to continue his stint as chief minister. The irony, however, is hard to miss. In 2002, Modi had the support of Advani, who had convinced then prime minister Vajpayee to give Modi a second chance. That staunch supporter from over a decade back has now turned Modi’s immediate opponent. No wonder then, this time, when Modi heads to Goa, he would be looking for the Goa mojo of 2002 to work for him again.
The Cogs, Wheels And Wheels Within Wheels
Who supports who in the party
- Murli Manohar Joshi
- Yashwant Sinha
- Jaswant Singh
- Sushma Swaraj
- Ananth Kumar
- Shivraj Singh Chouhan
- Uma Bharati
Very close to Narendra Modi
- J.P. Nadda
- Dharmendra Pradhan
- Sushil Modi
Very close to Arun Jaitley
- Second- and third-rung leaders
Very close to L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh
- S.S. Ahluwalia
- Shivraj Singh Chouhan
Very close to Sushma Swaraj
- S.S. Ahluwalia
- T S Gehlot
- Sudhanshu Mittal
Challengers to Narendra Modi
- L.K. Advani
- Sushma Swaraj
- Arun Jaitley
- Rajnath Singh
What May Happen
- Elevation for Narendra Modi as head of the Lok Sabha campaign committee for 2014
- Unlikely that Modi will be made the face of the BJP because lack of consensus
- Unlikely that any one person may be declared as the prime ministerial candidate for 2014 because of lack of consensus
- But pressure will mount, with clamour from rank and file to declare Modi as PM candidate
By Prarthana Gahilote in Mumbai