The BJP has decisively won the Gujarat electoral battle riding on the sustained charisma of Narendra Modi and the Congress failure to throw up a credible local leader. There is indeed no mistaking the fact that while in Gujarat it was Modi’s victory and not that of the party organisation, in Himachal the BJP’s defeat was largely attributable to the party organisation especially its national president, Nitin Gadkari.
While in Gujarat the principal poll planks were development and good governance under Modi, in Himachal the BJP initially campaigned on the plank of rampant corruption at the Centre with scam after scam proving a huge embarrassment for the Congress-led government. However, the wind went out of the party’s sails when party president Nitin Gadkari got painted with the same brush of corruption.
The BJP leaders were speechless when their taunts at Virbhadra Singh for corruption were brushed aside by Congressmen putting a counter question ‘what about your president (Gadkari)’? Overnight, the BJP’s poll rhetoric started sounding hollow and non-credible so much so that Gadkari was unwelcome in the State as a campaigner for his party.
What made matters worse was the dissident activities of Shanta Kumar and his followers against Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. As always, there was dissidence in the Congress as well but leaders and cadres across the board in that party were in awe of national president Sonia Gandhi who made known her preference for Virbhadra Singh by sending him from the Centre to run the Congress campaign.
By contrast, in the BJP, Gadkari had lost that vital moral grip and while he had gone into a shell after revelations of graft, his entreaties for organizational cohesion and unity fell on deaf ears. The party’s failure to replace Gadkari at a proper time with the entrenched perception that it was RSS which was calling the shots in the BJP was reminiscent of Karnataka where the party high command’s prolonged dithering in easing out Yeddyurappa from chief ministership had caused grievous damage to the BJP hold over the state.
Just as the mishandling of the Yeddyurappa corruption issue resulted in widespread demoralisation among the BJP cadres, the poor handling of the Gadkari issue led to a deep divide within the BJP which percolated downwards to the states except in Gujarat where Modi was all-pervasive. At the Centre, the Gadkari issue had its effect in a suspected quid pro quo between the Congress and the BJP that while the Congress did not rake up the Gadkari matter in the winter session of Parliament, the BJP did not make a hue and cry about Sonia son-in-law Robert Vadra’s controversial land deals.
All in all, the BJP has lost out heavily in public acceptability as a consequence of the Nitin Gadkari-related exposes’ and with less than an year and a half to go for the general elections it needs to set its house in order sooner than later if it is to have any hope of displacing the UPA from the Centre. The behind-the-scene role of the RSS in trying to remote control the BJP is what has added fuel to the fire of factionalism which afflicts the Sangh Parivar.
The RSS had foisted Gadkari as BJP president in the hope that he would re-establish its hegemony over the political outfit which had weakened in the wake of BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s attempts to assert the independence of action of the BJP. But the charges of misdemeanour against Gadkari upset the RSS plans. With opposition to Gadkari intensifying within the party, the BJP decision to elect a new leader in the second week of January is a signal that the RSS is prepared to jettison Gadkari so that the BJP can pitch for power in 2014 under a new leader who would be in a position to challenge the Congress.
With Narendra Modi having emerged triumphant from the Gujarat elections, he can be deemed to be a frontrunner for the party chief’s slot and perhaps later even as a contender for the prime minister’s position. But while Modi’s skills of governance are not in doubt, he is far from pliable which will make the RSS think twice. Through his decade-long rule in Gujarat, he has kept the local leaders of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at bay though ideologically, he is close to the RSS.
The signals that Modi has been sending out to Modi-watchers who see the 2002 riots in Gujarat as an albatross around his neck are mixed. When he conducted the Sadbhavana yatra, it was surmised that conciliation was on his mind and that he was subtly reaching out to the aggrieved Muslim community. But when he did not give a single ticket to the entire community which has a 9 per cent population in Gujarat in the recent assembly elections it was seen as a message that he was not prepared to give his Hindutva image a makeover that even remotely made it seem that he was reaching out to the Muslims at the cost of his Hindu vote bank. Yet, estimates say the Muslim vote did not completely go against Modi. About 25 per cent of the Muslims voted in his favour. The only reason the RSS may give its nod for Modi as prime ministerial nominee of the BJP would be if it sees some hope of a BJP government emerging after the general elections under his leadership. But there are other roadblocks too. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has time and again made it known that if Modi is the prime ministerial of the BJP his Janata Dal (U) would walk out of the BJP-led NDA. Telugu Desam supremo Chandrababu Naidu and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik would both think twice before extending support to a BJP which has Narendra Modi as its mascot. The reason for all of them is the hardline image of Modi which puts off Muslim voters.
Other possible names for the presidentship of BJP after Gadkari is forced to quit could be Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Venkaiah Naidu and Yashwant Sinha.
Arun Jaitley, who is leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha would be a worthy leader with his excellent communication skills, and his ability to evaluate issues with cogency. But Jaitley lacks a mass base and the RSS is lukewarm towards him.
Sushma Swaraj, who is leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, is a powerful orator who commands wide support within the party. But even she is not a mass leader. Whoever is the final choice, it would indeed be prudent for the BJP to break out of RSS stranglehold and to build up into own independent clout progressively.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.