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The contenders in BJP

Narendra Modi, awaiting a verdict on Godhra riots, is not the only BJP leader nursing ambitions of a national role. Shekhar Iyer takes a look at other power seekers and what comes between them and the top job. The other hopefuls

delhi Updated: Feb 19, 2012 08:41 IST
Shekhar Iyer

Any time any court has to pronounce an order that relates to the 2002 riots involving Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, it has brought up one question: is he off the hook? Will it pave the way for his national ambitions and projection as BJP's Prime Minister candidate in 2014?

It was no different on February 15 when the Ahmedabad magistrate who is trying the Gulbarg Society massacre case, ordered that the report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that probed the massacre should be given in full, along with 70,000 supporting documents, to the court by March 15.

A routine procedure, one would say, but the buzz was that the SIT was supposed to have given a clean chit to Modi and there was no "prosecutable evidence" against him on the complaint of Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ehsan Jafri was among the people killed in the Gulbarg Housing Society riots in 2002.

Activists like Teesta Setalvad believe Modi had a role but they depend on SIT to provide the evidence. Modi and the BJP say the Congress is trying to entangle him in cases to crush his image as they have failed to defeat him in elections.

Till February 29 when the court holds the next hearing, Modi's critics and supporters will have to wait. Still, that may not be the final call on his future — as the matter could be dragged to the High Court and then to the apex court. But, once the Gujarat polls are over, Modi cannot but turn his sight towards his national ambitions. Will it be that easy for him?

Narendra Modi, 60, Chief Minister, Gujarat
Industry's favourite leader

Modi made his mark as chief minister in the years after the 2002 riots when Gujarat's development index rose and its growth story surpassed other states. Cornered by critics since India's worst communal carnage, he focused on improving decision-making as well as the delivery system to earn the first place among all BJP chief ministers.

Modi is admired by BJP cadres all over the country. It was in January 2009, after L K Advani had been declared as BJP's prime ministerial candidate that India Inc backed him for the post. An embarrassed party leadership had to re-emphasise Advani's candidature. Subsequently, Modi has been continuously rated one of the best CMs known for his "no-nonsense" style of governance. Even his critics concede he is likely to get the mandate for a third successive time — though Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi will leave no stone unturned to stop his winning streak.

Modi's problem is that he trusts no one among his party leaders and runs his government with the help of a band of loyal bureaucrats. He has come to believe that he owes his position to no one and his pre-eminence means that the BJP must listen to him. That approach has left a huge deficit in his relations with many central leaders. He is not on talking terms with BJP chief Nitin Gadkari because he appointed his bête noire, Sanjay Joshi, as an election-in charge in UP. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat backs Gadkari and thinks that Modi is not being a team player. And any leader who refuses to play that role loses the chance of getting the party's parent body's support for the top slot. The RSS can play spoilsport unless Modi is willing to bend and acknowledge the Sangh's suzerainty.

If the SIT gives Modi a clean chit and Gujarat gives him a third win, it may pave the way for his ambitions on the national stage. The BJP may be forced to opt for him as the face of a resurgent party that will woo young voters with a proven record to deliver on governance. 2014 may turn out to be a Modi vs Rahul affair.

Modi can't automatically become a mascot for the 2014 polls. Although the cadres love him, his colleagues in the BJP are not exactly enamoured by him. They fear that once he shifts to Delhi, he will edge them out. Secondly, NDA allies are still wary of his image. If they accept him, they will lose Muslim votes. Besides, Modi is only temporarily off the hook. In fact, on September 12, 2011 the Supreme Court had asked the SIT to place the final probe report before the magistrate's court after going through it. It asked the court to give a hearing to Zakia Jafri before taking the next step. That had made Modi and his friends declare that he was on the clear. Modi even went on his sadbhavana fast to virtually launch his campaign for the December 2012 polls. But his critics point out that the SIT's probe was on the orders of the Supreme Court on a petition in which Jafri had levelled allegations that the massacre was the result of a conspiracy involving Modi and 61 others. No police help came to protect residents despite alleged phone calls made by Ehsan to Modi and others seeking protection. The SIT submitted its first report in May 2010 and the Supreme Court thought that the inferences of its chief in the report did not match the findings of the SIT. Hence it sought the comments of amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran who disagreed with certain conclusions in the SIT report and gave certain suggestions. Activists like Teesta Setalvad won't rest unless Modi is booked.

Sushma Swaraj, 60, Leader of Opposition, Lok Sabha
Formidable, fiery orator

Swaraj was chosen by BJP patriarch LK Advani to succeed her as leader of the party in the Lok Sabha after he quit as per wishes of the RSS following the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. Swaraj, along with Jaitley who was chosen leader of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, took up the mantle with great gusto and drew her first blood when the government, much against her advice, appointed PJ Thomas as chief vigilance commissioner and the Supreme Court later quashed his appointment. Swaraj took up the role of leader of opposition very seriously from day one as her mentor, Advani, always believed that role was virtually that of a "PM-in-waiting" or "shadow PM."

Known as a powerful orator, Swaraj was instrumental in the UPA pushing for Women's Reservation Bill, providing for one third quota for women, in the Rajya Sabha, which passed it. If Congress chief Sonia Gandhi were to decide again that the UPA must get the bill through the Lok Sabha, Swaraj will again play the role of a key pusher for the legislation. She commands the respect of BJP leaders and cadres alike and the RSS sees a great "utilitarian" value in her image as the representative of Bharatiya nari (Indian womanhood) who rose from the ranks. At 25, she was a youngest minister in Devi Lal's government in Haryana during 1977-79. In 1988, she became Delhi's first woman chief minister.

Swaraj contested unsuccessfully against Sonia Gandhi in the Lok Sabha polls in Bellary in Karnataka. That brought her in touch with the Reddy brothers, with whom she snapped ties before the CBI went after them for illegal mining. In 2005, Swaraj was seen as one of the contenders to be BJP chief, following Advani's resignation. She won the 2009 election from Vidisha by a margin of 3.89 lakh votes.

She is the only woman leader at the top of the BJP hierarchy. Advani remains her best bet to push her case for consideration for the PM slot. BJP cadres all over the country hold her leadership in admiration and her performance as a parliamentarian is often described by many BJP leaders as a role model. As she was a cabinet minister in Vajpayee's government, Swaraj has a vast administrative experience.

Swaraj is not exactly from the RSS stock though she has had good ties with the Sangh. Married to Swaraj Kaushal, a former Mizoram governor, she counts on him for her political feedback and management, which is not always in sync with the thinking of other BJP leaders.

Being a woman leader with a mass appeal, the BJP may be forced to turn to her for a pan India impact if one-third of seats in Parliament are reserved for women.

Like Jaitley, Swaraj can lose out to Modi if the BJP bows to cadres' wish. In case, the BJP keeps the issue of leadership and PM candidate open till the Lok Sabha polls, Swaraj may have to compete with other senior leaders who, she thinks, may try to eliminate her from the race. Patriarch Advani might not have enough say with the RSS to swing things her way.

Arun Jaitley, 59, Leader of Opposition, Rajya Sabha
Suave, sharp strategist
When he speaks, not just his party, even the government listens to him. Currently the leader of opposition, Arun Jaitley, 59, combines the role of an astute political manager and a sharp strategist. His suave and articulate ways and modernist and moderate approach to issues have often prompted some to compare him with BJP's all-time mascot, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Whether it is lokpal standoff, the ticklish civil nuclear liabilities bill or foreign direct investment, Jaitley's criticism and counsel are heard in rapt attention by even Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is the UPA's wizard for all troubles.

But, ever to duck the question whether he is among the party's prime ministerial contenders, Jaitley is clear that "the BJP will never have a PM who does not have political authority", pointing to the problems of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Citing the example of new Labour in UK under Tony Blair, Jaitley pressed for the BJP reinventing itself as a moderate, middle-of-the centre party after the 2009 debacle. Popular among the captains of industry for his economic views, Jaitley knows how to strike a balance between the RSS' insistence on adherence to the ideology and meeting the demands of modern-day governance. His favourite one-liner is "we in the BJP must realise India is changing and we must be seen as the party that can provide quality governance".

Credited with the BJP playing an effective opposition in Parliament in the last two years, Jaitley has been the Opposition's voice on issues ranging from nuances of law to corruption and scandals and core economic issues. His track record as commerce and law minister in the NDA government underlines his priorities: clean and consistent approach to governance and politics. He regards Vajpayee and Advani as his role models, and commands the respect of peers and younger leaders. The RSS often takes his advice on many issues. Unlike Modi who refused a skullcap from a cleric, Jaitley won't disregard acts of symbolism to buttress the image of BJP. He wins friends for the NDA, and keeps them (like Nitish and Parkash Badal).

Jaitley is close to Modi who is seen as No. 1 in the race for projection as BJP PM. He'd rather wait for his turn than manoeuvre himself ahead in the race as he himself denounces one-upmanship. Not having contested Lok Sabha polls, which his critics hold against him, Jaitley would love to prove his detractors wrong at the first opportunity, perhaps, in 2014.

He may turn out to be the best bet if the BJP needs a moderate face that has to appeal to the young India as well as to the allies of the NDA alliance. His USP is he can rock the party with ideas to spur the economy to faster growth.

Modi, unshackled from his legal tangles, could take precedence over him if the party ever decides to project a PM candidate to counter Rahul Gandhi. Jaitley could also lose out in case the RSS went for a dark horse like their favourite, Nitin Gadkari, if the latter managed to improve the BJP's fortunes in UP and other states that went to polls this month.