On the face of it, the BJP has run into a rough patch in an election campaign that has gone swimmingly for it so far. The most recent ructions have centred around ticket distribution, and have come with liberal doses of drama, more than a little embarrassment and, most seriously, the risk that momentum, that most crucial of ingredients in poll season, will be disrupted.
Party patriarch LK Advani was pressganged into accepting the Gandhinagar seat, located in his bête noire Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat. Other seniors have been given similarly short shrift: Murli Manohar Joshi dumped from Varanasi to make way for Modi, and Jaswant Singh dumped altogether.
Seven-time MP Harin Pathak was denied a ticket from Ahmedabad East, possibly due to his proximity to Advani.
All this has resulted in plenty of flak for the party – internally from Sushma Swaraj, and externally, among others, from key ally the Shiv Sena, disturbed at Advani’s continued humiliation.
This is not the first patch of squally weather in the campaign. The earlier one was around the naming of Modi as PM candidate in September, the opposition to him led by Advani, with Sushma and others in sullen chorus. Modi, with a little help from the party’s ideological patron, the RSS, and the BJP’s pragmatic president Rajnath Singh, prevailed, and the rival camp was left nursing its wounds.
The dramas have followed a pattern: rumour, innuendo, protest, backroom manoeuvring or sledgehammer (from Modi’s men), capitulation and sullen acceptance (the other side).
There are three things they illustrate, and one big question they give rise to.
First, they are symptomatic of a party that has been out of power for long. Not for the BJP, at least on the face of it, the centrally mandated decision making of the Congress party, where the leadership is accustomed to power and most people, even if humble foot soldiers, know their place in the party, both in terms of pecking order and role..
Second, and conversely, these disturbances show that the BJP is within striking distance of power. Anybody in doubt needs only to cast his eye at the other camp. Congress is full of politicians, including central ministers, who are doing their best to avoid a ticket for fear of defeat. There is unlikely to be much grief in the ruling party when the odd golden oldie is eased out. And chances are he or she will willingly go.
Third, they reflect the choice the BJP made six months ago. Modi has consolidated his hold on the party, and the recent bloodletting shows how he practices his politics. He is a hard man, but you can’t complain if you chose him to run the show and, by all accounts, are benefiting from his strong image.
The question that the BJP and its allies need to ponder is this: If the party deals with internal dissent in this fashion, how will it manage the coalition it will inevitably need to run?
The answer likely lies in how strong it is allowed to become. If, like its PM candidate, it is in an impregnable position – say, with only limited need of support to form a government – chances are it will be equally tough. But if it needs genuine partners, its leadership may have to adopt strategies that, on the evidence of how it has dealt with its own flock, are alien to it, and therefore sit somewhat uncomfortably.