LAST WEEK, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was hit by a curious contradiction. He notched a milestone victory for himself yet shot himself in the foot at the same time. For a man who has striven hard for a solo spot in the sun, Modi must be kicking himself for hyphenating his name with his bête noire Sanjay Joshi at the precise moment of his own clear rise within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But in a pattern that seems to repeat itself in his life, the path he chose to success may end up being his worst impediment.
For several years, the BJP has been having a bitter internal tussle for power along several arterial lines. There’s been a vertical fight for control between the party and its ideological mentor, the RSS. There’s been a horizontal fight for leadership between the older party guard, especially LK Advani, and the younger leaders. And there’s been heavy politicking within the party for the top spot — the prime ministerial candidacy — that’s not been filled since Atal Bihari Vajpayee vacated it. (As a journalist joked on television, the party has been fighting for the byline even before it has written the story. To which a BJP wit replied, “That’s because the authors lie outside the party.”)
Last fortnight, at the high-voltage BJP national executive meet in Mumbai, on the face of it, Modi, 61, forced answers onto many of these questions. Despite his many faux pas, the RSS wanted their man Nitin Gadkari to have an unprecedented second term as party president. To accommodate this, the BJP had to amend its constitution. As a powerful member of the executive, Modi’s consent was needed. Modi, however, had been on a prolonged and very public sulk ever since Gadkari had rehabilitated Joshi into the party fold and placed him in charge of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. By insisting now that Joshi — a strong RSS man — first be sacked from the executive before he would deign to attend the meeting, Modi seemed to have shown the RSS its place and sloughed off its control. He also stopped Joshi from taking a train ride through Gujarat and forced him to fly back to Delhi, to pre-empt his showcasing his angry supporters from station-stop to stationstop. For many party well-wishers — hungry for the BJP to reinvent itself as a right-ofcentre party not latched to a regressive communal agenda — these assertions would have seemed a significant emancipation.
Certainly when Modi walked into the hall in Mumbai, it seemed all the leadership questions — horizontal and vertical — had been sorted out. The crowds roared for their “Gujarat ka sher” and the entire leadership came down from the dais to escort him on stage. Like the others, Gadkari walked a step behind. (There is a theory that RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat had allowed Modi to stage this victory so that the Gadkari-Modi partnership would become the new power centre, forge a new sense of unity and cement both Parivar and party.)
However, barely a few hours later, all of this started to implode. A clearly upset Advani and Sushma Swaraj left the meet early and went back to Delhi. The next day, Advani wrote his famous blog criticising Gadkari and asking the party to introspect. Before the sizzle of this could die down, in a barely veiled attack on Modi, the BJP mouthpiece Kamal Sandesh and RSS journal Panchajanya wrote scathing editorials about leaders who were in too much of a hurry, who thought they were above the sanctity of the organisation, who felt “only their will should be honoured and no one should command but me”; who forget that “as they go up the ladder, their thoughts must elevate too”; and who have a false sense of invincibility. Quick on the heels of this, another Sangh Parivar mouthpiece, the Organiser, wrote yet another editorial, praising Modi as “by far the most popular leader in the country” and as the only BJP leader who could catapult the party to power as Vajpayee had done in the 1990s.
Then on 5 June, a few billboards came up anonymously at strategic locations in Delhi and Gujarat, plastered with photographs of Joshi and the slogan — Dil se bolo, Sanjay Joshi phir se — couplets from Vajpayee’s poems, questions about the BJP’s sense of justice, which promotes one leader by asking for the resignation of others, and scorn about such “dadagiri”. A coup had been effected. The Modi-Joshi rivalry became the top news story, eclipsing the rise of Modi. Joshi was suddenly almost as well-known a name as Modi in many parts of the country.
All of this brings an astonishing set of firsts. Modi’s rise — and the manner in which he engineered it — has not only set fire to the BJP, parting it through the middle and making the battlelines clear; it has even put a cleaver through the highly closed and ideologically tight-knit ranks of the Sangh Parivar, outing its differences like never before.
RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav laughs heartily when asked for an assessment of the situation, or even his opinion on what makes Modi both so coveted and polarising a leader within the party. “I have nothing to say on him,” he says. “It’s all out there to see. The media can say what they want, but ultimately it’s the voters who will decide.”
Other BJP leaders are more unequivocal. One senior partyman says, “It’s a very turbulent time for the BJP. I don’t blame Nitin Gadkari for the mess. He’s just trying to keep everyone happy. Personally, he has nothing against Joshi but if he had not requested him to leave, he’d have been held responsible for an even bigger dissidence within the party. Narendrabhai is a very able administrator but he has to understand there have been as able chief ministers as him within the BJP.”