Furious BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani threw his party into crisis on Monday by quitting key posts in an apparent protest against the promotion of rival Narendra Modi to head the 2014 campaign.
The 85-year-old leader's move left colleagues scrambling to find a compromise and is bound to underline perceptions of the party as a house divided that will struggle to oust even a UPA government weakened by corruption scandals and its inability to control rising prices.
And though both the party and its ideological patron the RSS indicated that Advani should not be allowed to go in this fashion, they held firm on the decision to give Modi the key job of national campaign panel head in line with demands from party workers.
Party chief Rajnath Singh, flanked by senior leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, announced after an emergency meeting of the BJP’s parliamentary board that the party had rejected Advani’s resignation and had appealed to him to withdraw it. Though this request had the backing of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Advani held firm in the absence of a face-saver, and there were no signs of a way out of the impasse.
This led to speculation that the BJP could even split, testament to both the heft of Advani and polarising nature of Modi, who has made no secret of his prime ministerial ambitions. If the BJP holds firm, it could spell curtains for the career of Advani, a former deputy prime minister who is credited, along with Atal Behari Vajpayee, of turning a party of two MPs into one that ruled the country for six years from 1998.
Advani said in a strongly worded letter to Rajnath that he was stepping down from the party's national executive, its parliamentary board and election committee. He, however, did not quit from either the party's primary membership or the chairmanship of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Over the weekend, Advani skipped the BJP's national executive meeting in Goa, citing health reasons — his first absence from such an event in 33 years. His dramatic resignation on Monday confirmed suspicions that it was anger against Modi's ascent that was more likely the reason for the spry octogenarian staying away.
"For some time I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going," Advani wrote, saying that the BJP was no longer an idealistic party, and that its leaders were concerned with just their personal agendas.
Modi tweeted that he had called up the elder leader, saying, ""I hope he will not disappoint lakhs of karyakartas (party workers)." Yoga guru Ramdev, a known backer of Modi, too, joined in the efforts to placate him.His supporters said Advani was angry because, in return for reluctantly accepting Modi as campaign head, he had wanted former party president Nitin Gadkari to be made chief of an election management committee for the four states going to polls in the rest of this year — Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and this was not done. Ironically, Advani had got Gadkari to quit as party head following a controversy over dealings by companies associated with him. But this led to the appointment of Rajnath instead of one of his acolytes.
When Rajnath met Advani on Monday after he sent in his resignation letter, the patriarch did not mince words in telling him that his "plea" for a "small thing" like Gadkari heading a panel had not been heeded.
Advani has been telling BJP leaders that the party since its Jana Sangh days had left the last word to its senior-most leader. Most BJP leaders say they would not have had a problem with Advani's decisions "if he had not reduced himself to projecting a faction" within the party and if the RSS were not so opposed to him.
Sources said that Advani preferred that the issue of prime ministerial candidate be kept open until after the Lok Sabha polls so that allies were not driven away by Modi. Alternatively, he wanted either his name to be considered or that of Sushma Swaraj, his protégé and leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha.
But in the end, the weight of the BJP cadres, and public popularity of Modi as reflected in various opinion polls, proved too compelling an argument for his appointment as poll panel chief, a possible precursor to the PM candidacy.