The Bharatiya Janata Party dumped its scam-tainted president Nitin Gadkari on Tuesday, turning to the safe choice of veteran Rajnath Singh and underlining rifts within the party ahead of a crucial 18 months of state and national elections.
The night before he was due to be nominated for a second term, Gadkari quit after income-tax raids on companies connected to the Purti group left his position untenable and cost him the crucial support of the BJP's ideological patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The return of political heavyweight Rajnath — who was BJP president from 2006 to 2009 — complicates the choice of the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2014, because Rajnath has in the past shared an uneasy relationship with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, currently a favourite for the mantle.
Who’ll be the face of the party in the general elections will almost certainly be decided by the RSS, which once again showed its clout in BJP appointments by pushing through the choice of Rajnath for president once it became clear that returning Gadkari was becoming impossible.
The 61-year-old Rajnath is set to become the consensus choice president on Wednesday, when the nominations for the post close.
HT was the first to report, on January 11, that Gadkari's prospects were getting weaker due to opposition from top BJP leader LK Advani.
Gadkari's exit was the culmination of a dramatic day marked by Advani sticking to his opposition to a second term, and another top leader, Yashwant Sinha, signalling his interest in the job by procuring a nomination form. A third leader, lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani, complained he was denied one.
After news of the income-tax raids, top BJP and RSS leaders went into a huddle in Mumbai and Delhi.
Advani told RSS deputy chief Bhaiyya Joshi that Yashwant Sinha would contest against Gadkari, to which the BJP chief said he would quit and Rajnath should take over.
RSS then summoned BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, who assembled at BJP's Rajya Sabha leader Arun Jaitley's office. RSS pointsman Suresh Soni told the leaders that Rajnath would be the next party chief.
Earlier, Gadkari was in Uttan, near Mumbai, sharing the stage with Advani at an RSS event, but the two appeared to exchange cold vibes.
Gadkari, who faces charges of impropriety related to the Purti group of companies formerly owned by his family, issued a statement that the IT raids and probe on him were an act of "political vendetta".
He had consistently said that he would quit only if held guilty by a court of law, but BJP leaders told the RSS that they would be hard put to defend him any further, and the president found himself isolated.
Sources said the BJP-RSS talks threw up names including Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar but the RSS firmly made it clear that if it was not
Gadkari, their first choice for the top post, then it would have to be Rajnath. Other senior BJP leaders apparently agreed to "concur" as the Sangh's view was clear.
Gadkari said: "I have committed no wrong or any impropriety either directly or indirectly. Yet the UPA government has been making an effort to spread disinformation about me in order to hurt me and my party. I have always said that I am willing for any independent enquiry. I shall fight these efforts of this government both politically and legally."
He added: "I do not wish that this should in any way adversely affect the interest of the BJP. I have therefore decided not to seek a second term as the president of the BJP."