AT THE RSS headquarters in Nagpur and for many at the BJP headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, in New Delhi, Yashwant Sinha is the single big source of concern. It was his mini public revolt — allegations that he was behind the strategic leakage of information related to IT action against the Purti Group, and his threat to contest for the post of the BJP president — that saw RSS poster boy Nitin Gadkari biting the dust. A smarting RSS had to settle for Rajnath Singh as the new BJP president and everyone thought that the matter had been settled.
But soon after that, Sinha led another chorus, which he calls the voice of the party workers, in support of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 General Election. Indeed, so infectious was the chorus that Rajnath Singh had to issue a gag order to instil discipline in the party, but only to be defied by Sinha’s comrade- in-arms, Shatrughan Sinha.
As if this was not enough, in an interview to a television channel, Yashwant Sinha set the cat among the pigeons by saying that Nitish Kumar — the BJP’s most trusted ally — should accept Modi as the PM candidate. At the age of 75, Sinha looks like a man on a mission to reinvent himself.
So when you meet Sinha, the first obvious question to ask is why this hatred of Nitin Gadkari and why this sudden assault on the BJP’s established style of functioning. Is he trying to reposition himself within the party in order to make himself useful to the new guard, whose rise now seems almost a settled matter?
Laughing heartily at the question, Sinha says he shares a “cordial relationship” with Gadkari. “All of us in public life have to be conscious of how the people perceive us. I had only said there were some allegations against Gadkari, and though there was no chargesheet and he had not been summoned, knowing the facts that appeared in the media, one knew these things would follow. I suggested he should step down, get his name cleared and then come back. Unfortunately, that was not accepted. When his re-election as the party president seemed imminent, I felt I should also throw my hat in the ring. Thankfully, the situation changed a day before the election.”
He then chuckles and says, “A bit of indiscipline is all right.” On why he thinks Modi should be the PM, he says, “India has seen extremely weak leadership in the past decade and that is why I think Modi would make a good PM.” He feels the fear that BJP’s allies would get upset over this is exaggerated. “For the BJP to form the next government, we have to win more than 200 seats. We have seen that parties flock to us after we do well in the elections, even those that have a problem with us because of the minority vote factor. Senior JD(U) leaders, including Nitish Kumar, are my close friends. As the architect of this alliance, I don’t want it to break down, but if something is in the BJP’s interest and the national interest, the JD(U) should go with it.”
Despite severe criticism from the JD(U) on this stand, and senior BJP leaders choosing not to comment on it, a section within the BJP is ecstatic about Sinha trying to put Nitish in his place. “Sinha has said what we wanted to say for a long time, but could not. It’s high time Nitish was told we are equals in Bihar and it would be a folly to treat us as a junior partner,” says a BJP leader, who didn’t want to be named.
A senior JD(U) leader, however, calls Sinha a Diljaley. “He feels he has everything it takes to be the PM, but within his own party, he has to rake up controversies to stay relevant.”
BORN IN Patna, Bihar, Sinha joined the IAS in 1960. That he was both aggressive and sharp was evident from his early days as an IAS officer. An anecdote that has acquired the status of legend gives us a peek into his temperament. As a young district collector, Sinha was once at the receiving end of a public tongue lashing by the then revenue minister of Bihar. Sinha famously retorted, “Don’t shout at me. I can become a minister, but you cannot become an IAS officer.”
Sinha’s whole political journey has been marked by this aggression, this spirit of never taking things lying down. In his own words, though, he has “mellowed down a lot” over the years.
After 24 years as a bureaucrat, Sinha decided to call it quits. “I was feeling stale in the administrative service and thought I needed a bigger canvas. I had promised my mentor Jayaprakash Narayan that I would quit the IAS for a different role in public life.” Though JP was dead by the time Sinha finally decided to leave the IAS, he says he was fulfilling this personal commitment made to his mentor.
“I thought Chandra Shekhar from the Janata Party was the closest to JP’s vision, so I joined his party,” says Sinha. “In 1989, I reached a crossroads in my political career when the Janata Party became the Janata Dal. And when the Janata Dal split, I left it along with Chandra Shekhar and we formed the Samajwadi Janata Party.”
After the 1991 General Election, in which Sinha’s party fared badly, he had to decide whether to continue in politics or not. “The choice was between the Congress and the BJP, and I opted to join the latter.”
Lal Krishna Advani described Sinha’s entry in the BJP as a “Diwali gift”. Sinha contested the Bihar Assembly elections in 1995 and became the leader of the Opposition when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the chief minister. “With his aggression and sharp wit, Sinha soon made a mark in state politics. Even Lalu Yadav avoided engaging him in public,” says senior journalist Harivansh.
Sinha laughs when reminded of this. “I was leader of the Opposition when Laluji was at the height of his power with an absolute majority, and we were face to face in the Assembly. He has his own earthy style and I had to adopt his style occasionally to tackle him. I believe I was good at that.”
There is one incident that aptly describes how Sinha took on Lalu Yadav. During a Budget presentation, Lalu was not answering the questions that Sinha had raised. Finally, an angry Sinha reportedly said, “Laluji, what is the point of this discussion? Let’s go and play oka-boka-teen-tadoka (a game played by small children in Bihar and UP).”
PEOPLE CLOSE to Sinha describe him as an articulate leader, who has always sought a big canvas for himself. He has refused to accept anything that he felt was below his stature. For instance, when the then PM VP Singh invited him to join the government in 1989, but didn’t offer him a Cabinet berth, Sinha simply refused.
Asked about his toughest political decision, Sinha points to the crisis in 1990-91, when as finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar government, he had to mortgage India’s gold to meet the country’s loan obligations. In his second stint as finance minister, in the NDA government, personal attacks were made against his daughter-in-law and how he was helping her. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was reportedly unhappy with his style of functioning and he had to make way for Jaswant Singh as the new finance minister.
Though Sinha never admits it, insiders say that the ‘outsider’ tag has stuck with him because of his political distance from the RSS. Although he has the stature, he never found the acceptability among BJP hardliners.
Insiders say Sinha’s meteoric rise has always had the backing of his mentor LK Advani. But of late, their relationship seems to have become somewhat strained. Following the BJP’s debacle in the 2009 General Election, Sinha wrote a letter taking thinly-veiled digs at Advani. Even during the controversy surrounding Advani’s remarks on Jinnah, Sinha was among his detractors. Ever since, he has remained marginalised in the party. Many in the BJP feel Sinha is backing Modi because he sees the Gujarat strongman’s rise as inevitable and wants to align with him, to resurrect his position in the party.
Like every other sphere of life, politics too has its share of ironies. In 2009, Sinha had resigned from all party posts, asking the then BJP president Rajnath Singh to initiate a probe into the reasons for the party’s electoral debacle, suggesting that it was putting a “premium on failure”. Now, Rajnath Singh is back as the BJP president and Sinha’s actions are once again making him uncomfortable. The Sangh Parivar clearly has to contend with this ‘outsider’ among its ranks.