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Follow which leader?

The Ramlila in the BJP seems to be over and, hopefully, its new president will get down to the task of putting the party back on track, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2006 04:45 IST
Between us | Pankaj Vohra
Between us | Pankaj Vohra

The Ramlila in the BJP seems to be over and hopefully, its new president, Rajnath Singh — who is not Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman or the infamous dhobi — will get down to the serious task of putting the party back on track. This will be difficult given the state of affairs in the Sangh parivar. The new year would have been hopeful for the saffron party but for the open display of differences by its members. This will not help the BJP one bit, especially at a time when it has to look ahead and build itself up in the post-Vajpayee-Advani era.

Fortunately for the BJP, it has hardly any stakes in the assembly elections that are due in 2006. It has negligible presence in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry, West Bengal and Assam and, therefore, now has one whole year to think of new strategies. Nonetheless, indications from Jharkhand, where the BJP is in power and the possibility of a change in leadership is looming large, are not very heartening for the party.

The BJP’s Mumbai conclave will be remembered largely because the politics of deception overshadowed the celebrations. Unfortunately for the new president, the signal that has emanated from Mumbai is that he is destined to play second-fiddle to several leaders like Vajpayee, Advani and Pramod Mahajan. But the shrewd Rajput, who’s taking over the reins of a party that traditionally has had Brahmins and Banias at its nucleus, may yet outwit them.

In Mumbai, the spotlight was not on Rajnath Singh, as one would have expected, but on infighting, sex, sleaze and power politics. The session will also be remembered as Advani’s revenge on the RSS. The latter may have won the first round by displacing Advani. But Advani has quit on his own terms, getting his candidate appointed as his successor, thereby denying the Sangh the chance to bring in Murli Manohar Joshi.

It is a tribute to Advani’s political shrewdness that he has outmanoeuvred all his rivals in the Sangh parivar. It matters little to him what happens next as he will continue to be leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, a post from which it will be difficult for anyone to displace him given that Rajnath Singh is the president and not Joshi. It is another matter that in order to secure his future, Rajnath may even decide to toe the Sangh line.

Vajpayee seemed to be not his natural self, probably because he was in the background most of the time, with Advani hogging the limelight. However, he showed his political sharpness by announcing his retirement from active politics, thereby sending a strong signal to Advani that he should do the same since the RSS wanted both of them to give up the frontline roles. By describing Pramod Mahajan as the new Lakshman, the former PM tried to publicly distance himself from the decision to appoint Rajnath Singh as the next party chief even though he’d endorsed this appointment. By doing so, Vajpayee tried to send a message to the Brahmin community (Mahajan is a Brahmin) that appointing a Rajput was not his doing but that of Advani and the RSS.

In any case, Mahajan has emerged as the person most likely among the younger generation to provide leadership to the party. It is to be seen how, over the next few days, Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Narendra Modi and Ananth Kumar respond to the change that has put them in the second row, with the new president and Mahajan occupying the front seats. Kalyan Singh’s animosity to Rajnath can also spoil the party for him.

The RSS, of course, must be licking the wound inflicted by Advani, who, even in his parting press conference, had a dig at the BJP’s controlling authority. By rating moral and spiritual quotients ahead of emotional and intelligence quotients, he may have been telling the Sangh that it should first set its own house in order in the wake of the Sanjay Joshi scandal. Similar stories of moral turpitude concerning other Sangh functionaries could further ruin the RSS image.

In a way, Advani has demonstrated that while he will stay on for sometime in an active role, the position of the RSS sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, has become vulnerable. It is a matter of time before Mohan Bhagwat will take over the RSS.

On the Rajnath front, Advani and company may have miscalculated somewhat. Unlike the four proxies — Kushabhau Thakre, Bangaru Laxman, Jana Krishnamurthy and Venkaiah Naidu — who were BJP presidents during the last six years, Rajnath cannot be taken for granted. Unlike the others, he has been a chief minister and comes from the Hindi heartland. He is shrewd and his caste will go in his favour. He may, along with Mahajan, easily outfox his colleagues. He has age on his side and within the Sangh, supporters of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Jaswant Singh may offer their support to him readily, as will also others outside the BJP fold. The Rajputs, on the Sangh bandwagon during Rajju Bhaiyya’s stint as RSS chief, will be back.

But the downside is that Uma Bharati, who is on an Ayodhya yatra, may upstage the younger leaders still. After Vajpayee, she is the biggest crowd-puller and if reports are to be believed, the response she has been getting is overwhelming. Her shadow loomed over the Mumbai conclave, as she has written letters to key BJP functionaries seeking their support. During the celebrations, the delegates did raise Ram mandir slogans and the applause normally reserved for Vajpayee and Advani in the past was only for the Ram temple. She could well become the rallying point for those disillusioned with the way the party has been taking key decisions and, therefore, emerge as the real BJP. Between us.

First Published: Jan 02, 2006 01:53 IST