There is a curious mismatch between India’s fiercely argumentative national temperament and its corresponding wariness of robust inner-party democracy. The boisterous celebration of diversity and competitive politics are inexplicably combined with a yearning for disciplined parties and decisive leaders.
This penchant for autocratic democracy may explain why last Thursday’s contrived truce between warring ministers was hastily choreographed and flaunted as evidence of Sonia Gandhi’s firm grip over the party. It may also help decipher the frantic attempt by a shaken BJP leadership to de-politicise Narendra Modi’s absence from last week’s national executive session, while simultaneously stressing the importance of party unity to confront a tottering regime.
On the face of it, the BJP may also be inclined to repeat the ‘all is well’ quip of a Congress minister, but only if it values self-deprecation. Modi’s factional detractors have cast him as a petulant regional satrap — with the implication that he is an interloper on the national stage. On his part, Modi has maintained a characteristically imperious silence. Overall, there is profound unease in the BJP that unless the issue is managed with tact and wisdom, it may explode in the party’s face and unsettle the journey back to power.
What was witnessed last week was not an ego battle involving Modi and LK Advani over some proposed anti-corruption yatra. Modi isn’t in competition with Advani who in turn isn’t any longer seriously in contention as the BJP’s public face in a future general election campaign.
The decision to stay away from last week’s meeting was over an issue that may strike people as very trivial: it was a protest against BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s decision to quietly rehabilitate former organisation secretary Sanjay Joshi. The Modi-Joshi spat dates back to the politics of Gujarat in the mid-1990s when Modi was packed off to Delhi and made to feel unwelcome in his home state, where Joshi ran the organisation. Following Modi’s triumphant return in 2001, Joshi was hastily shifted out of Gujarat, elevated to a national post in Delhi and then abruptly removed in 2006 following an unsavoury sex scandal.
In the context of national politics and, indeed, the future of the BJP, Modi’s expression of displeasure may seem trivial and unworthy of the attention of someone with an eye on the top political post in India. This may well be true but, carefully pre-meditated or otherwise, Modi’s protest has also drawn attention to two larger questions that the BJP has so far carefully sidestepped.
In questioning Joshi’s resumption of an active leadership role in the BJP, Modi was doing more than questioning Gadkari’s judgement. Joshi, after all, wasn’t just any other apparatchik; he was an erstwhile RSS pracharak (full-timer) from Nagpur whose return to political life had been authorised by the RSS top brass. In questioning Joshi’s return, Modi was simultaneously questioning the right of the RSS to decide political appointments in the BJP.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Modi has pitted himself against the RSS. Since 2002, his relationship with the parivar leadership in Gujarat has been tense, if not outright antagonistic. In the 2007 Gujarat assembly election, the top brass of the Gujarat RSS kept away from the campaign. Their aloofness didn’t make the slightest difference: almost every ordinary RSS member campaigned for Modi energetically.
In coping with Modi, the RSS has been faced with a dilemma. The Gujarat chief minister has guarded his political autonomy zealously, and even more fiercely than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To an RSS accustomed to obedience and deference from politicians, Modi is viewed as a difficult customer: highly individualistic and fiercely argumentative. No other BJP leader would have survived the sustained hostility of the RSS, but Modi has grown and grown in stature. At the same time, his unquestioned mass following in Gujarat and his charismatic hold over the political Hindu imagination have forced the RSS to swallow its pride and tolerate Modi. Seething with rage at his high-handedness and impetuosity, the RSS has, at best, only succeeded in slowing his national ambitions.
There may be good tactical reasons why a more centrist approach may yield better returns for the BJP than Modi’s aggressive nationalism. The RSS, however, can’t be seen to be embracing such assumptions. It can’t repudiate Modi but is wary of embracing him.
Modi’s open defiance of a RSS whip is calculated to throw Nagpur into a tizzy. There are whispers in the Sangh of the need to prevent Modi from holding a strategic veto. A bitter war of attrition between an over-bearing Parivar and a mass leader could be in the offing, with ominous consequences for the BJP. Modi, after all, is questioning the RSS claim to be more equal than the others.
The conflict is likely to crystallise over the leadership question for the next general election. If the BJP had a system of primaries, there is little doubt that Modi would win convincingly. Unfortunately, the BJP (like the Congress) hasn’t institutionalised inner-party democracy and selecting the leader has become the prerogative of a cabal of ‘wise’ men. This is how both Rajnath Singh and Gadkari were appointed BJP presidents. In such a situation it is extremely unlikely that Modi will be able to bulldoze a decision in his favour using the adulation of the committed as his weapon — not unless he wants to emulate Mao Zedong and urge the faithful to “bombard the headquarters” and reinvent the BJP.
Temperamentally, Modi is at his best when taking on the enemy. However, with an ongoing no-holds-barred war against a formidable liberal Establishment out, can he risk opening another front? The history of Modi suggests that he loves springing surprises.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal