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With friends like these

It is the RSS that is making the BJP's battle to be a party of the future - a modern right-of-centre political party - much tougher. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Feb 01, 2013 21:57 IST

For political journalists, reporting on the BJP - with its loquacious leaders, open dissent and camp warfare - can often be much more interesting and lively than covering the more tightly-controlled, top-down power structure and exasperatingly opaque style of the Congress. What makes it especially challenging is that in the BJP nothing is necessarily as it seems. Take some statements too literally and you may find yourself on a political tangent.

Just this week, Yashwant Sinha, freshly satisfied with the dramatic, last-minute ouster of Nitin Gadkari (at least, partly because of Sinha's threat to contest for the post of party president), said to me that if Manmohan Singh could be prime minister then as a bureaucrat with a bent for economics, Sinha, should be seen as someone with the requisite qualifications for the top job as well. But then he went on to argue that it wasn't a curriculum vitae but charisma that would win the day and in that context, there was only one man - Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi - who fits the bill. Now, was Sinha pitching for the Gujarat CM or queering the pitch for him with the remote-controllers in the RSS who are known to dislike Modi's assertion of political autonomy?

The former finance minister has never been a favourite with the big bosses in Nagpur (he chuckled when I suggested that, readily admitting to not being a suitor for their affections since he did not have a Sangh background) and his candid comments led to many whispers about whether this was more about a section of the party declaring independence from the stranglehold of the RSS than it was about who would be the party's prime ministerial candidate.

If you examine the faultlines within the BJP more closely, the recent tremors have had their origin in a subterranean move for wresting political control from the RSS. The troika of LK Advani (who in 2011 was pressured by Nagpur to rule himself out as a candidate for the country's top job), Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha are seen to be among those who battled to stop Gadkari from getting a second term. But they were able to savour only a partial victory, for in Rajnath Singh the BJP is once again led by someone who owes allegiance to the Sangh. In other words, the imprint of the RSS on the party remains indelible. When some of these leaders now ask for Modi to be declared the party's face for 2014, it reflects more a coincidence of interests between them and Modi than any genuine political loyalty (leaders like Jaswant Singh have in the past shared an antagonistic equation with Modi).

The irony is that while Modi's critics and even some of his allies (it's only a matter of time before the alliance with Nitish Kumar breaks) see him as a hardline, contentious candidate who will drive away as many voters as he attracts, within the Sangh parivar, he is seen as an uncontrollable entity; the only one who, if given a chance on the national stage, could possibly afford to ignore the circumscriptions of the RSS and secede from its confining boundaries. In Gujarat, Modi's relations with the more extreme groups like the VHP are seriously strained.

The RSS may be forced to come around to the view that despite its misgivings it has no option but to throw its weight behind the Gujarat CM. But it will make sure that it extracts some sort of assurance or ideological compromise before Modi can be anointed. It is in this context that this week's meeting between the top brass of the wider Sangh parivar (groups like the VHP also attended) and the party leadership becomes so interesting and significant.

It is reliably learnt that at this meeting the RSS and the VHP made a strong push for the BJP to return to the Hindutva politics of the 1990s. Whether from an anxiety over how to counter the recent spate of terror charges against the right-wing Hindu groups or a genuine ideological obstinacy, the template was defined. The so-called 'back-to-basics' argument even sought to drag Ayodhya from the debris of history as murmurs mount about Modi being a candidate from Lucknow in 2014. There was even an insistence that some sort of announcement on Ayodhya be made to coincide with the ongoing Mahakumbh.

The historical irony of that choice - were it to happen - seems to escape the BJP or at the very least, the RSS. Lucknow was the seat of AB Vajpayee who remains not just the BJP's most popular leader but also an example of why a consensus-builder is so crucial in the age of coalition politics.

While Modi sometimes seems to enjoy the polarising impact he has on public opinion, he has at the same time sought to step out of the shadow of 2002 by insisting that his repeated electoral victories are driven by effective governance and efficient economics. Those who support him across urban India also choose to see him through that prism.

If the RSS were to insist that Modi now become the poster boy of a born-again Ram Janmabhoomi movement - either with the thought of reviving its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh or because it is anxious about the recent terror cases - it would effectively puncture Modi's own assiduously built political positioning. But beyond the intra-battles of the BJP and who is standing on which side of the trenches, it would demolish the party's attempt to be a modern right-of-centre party and take it back to being defined as a Hindu nationalist one. The RSS, in other words, is making the BJP's battle to be a party of the future that much tougher.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative

The views expressed by the author are personal