By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a customary propriety that governs political discourse in India. However, even the most accommodating libertarian would be hard put to describe Arun Shourie’s interview to Shekhar Gupta on NDTV on August 24 as anything but excessively colloquial. That the former editor-turned-politician is disinclined to conventional niceties is well known. Last Monday, short of uttering unparliamentary profanities, Shourie did everything to tear mercilessly into the Bharatiya Janata Party and its top leadership. He described BJP president Rajnath Singh as a man desperate to play Tarzan, an “Alice in Blunderland”, a supine Thakur and a man whose sole attribute is his “All India Radio voice”. Few stand-up comics could have done better.
Shourie, however, is not a political innocent. Before watching the interview in its entirety, I felt that Shourie had drafted the longest political suicide note in the brief history of the BJP. On Tuesday evening, I was proved horribly wrong when the baritone Thakur refused to expel Shourie and almost apologetically asked him to explain the “spirit” behind his remarks, if he was so inclined and at his own convenience. It was put out “sources” close to the party president’s—“sources” that no longer care to enforce the principle of deniability—that Shourie hadn’t made any personal attacks on Rajnath and that, unlike the unfortunate Jaswant Singh who was shown the door without a hint of courtesy, the attacks had been “political”, not “ideological”, and therefore was a far lesser offence than describing Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a “great man”.
In tackling Shourie with kid gloves, the BJP president’s conduct was reminiscent of a Chief Constable confronted with the misfortune of dealing with a monarch apprehended for rash driving under the influence of alcohol. His indulgent “boys will be boys” approach was in sharp contrast to the muscle flexing over discipline the BJP witnessed during the eventful three-day chintan baithak in The Peterhof, Shimla.
The most charitable explanation for Rajnath’s pusillanimity is that many of Shourie’s allusions to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lewis Carroll were, unfortunately, lost in translation. The suggestion that Rajnath was persuaded that the comparison with Tarzan was actually flattering—the King of the Apes was, after all, a pedigreed English aristocrat who had brought order to an anarchic animal kingdom—may be a bit fanciful. However, it is undeniable that Shourie’s outburst focussed as much attention on the perpetrator as it did on the judge.
Consistency is said to be a virtue of little minds but the brazen show of double standards has served to highlight the style of a leader who has been at the organisational helm of the BJP since 2006 and who plans to cling on to office till July/August next year.
Rajnath has been the most controversial BJP president in the party’s 29 year history. The mention of his name provokes mixed responses from the faithful, from dismissive condescension to visceral antipathy. Jaswant Singh has brushed him away as a “provincial politician” unworthy of the post he is occupying; a senior legislator from Uttar Pradesh suggested to me at the time of his appointment that Rajnath’s “achievements were disproportionate to his performance”; the charge of casteism and “Thakurvad” has been routinely levelled at him; and at least one commentator has bluntly indicated his penchant for “transactional” relationships. Yet, Rajnath has doggedly persisted and survived every crisis to fight another day. He has ensured he can’t ever be written off.
To gauge the secret of Rajnath’s ability to be at the centre of a Mad Hatter’s Party and yet keep head and shoulder intact, it is necessary to look at the circumstances of his appointment. When the decision to remove Advani as party president was taken by the RSS in mid-2005, the search for a successor proved difficult. Many of those who were elevated to leadership positions by Advani were squeamish about inheriting the mantle under controversial circumstances. Within the party to brass, the consensus veered in favour of re-appointing M.Venkiah Naidu, whose tenure was interrupted by his resignation following the defeat in 2004. At this juncture the RSS intervened, chose Rajnath and ensured his unanimous selection. The choice was backed by Atal Behari Vajpayee; Advani, however, wasn’t enthused.
In 2005, Vajpayee had reason to be favourably disposed towards Rajnath. A man of strong likes and dislikes, Vajpayee had over the years developed a strong antipathy for Kalyan Singh, the undisputed mass leader of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Whether this was due to incessant tale-carrying by some upper-caste leaders or a function of Kalyan’s partiality for backward caste politics is a matter of conjecture. But Vajpayee strongly backed the moves to destabilise Kalyan. As president of the UP state unit, Rajnath emerged as a parallel power centre and, in time, became Chief Minister after Kalyan’s expulsion in 1999 and the disastrous Ram Prakash Gupta interregnum.
The state Assembly election in 2003, which was fought under Rajnath’s leadership, proved disastrous for the BJP. The party was relegated to third position but no blame was attached to Rajnath. He was quietly removed from state politics and was appointed Cabinet minister at the Centre. After the 2004, he was appointed general secretary but was never a major player in national BJP politics.
The RSS decision to nominate Rajnath as successor to Advani was based on a few elementary considerations. First, Rajnath was a relatively faceless leader, lacking a national profile. In time, he was expected to acquire an image that highlighted the distinction between a wholesome Bharat and an increasingly deracinated India. Rajnath had also proved himself a Sangh loyalist and was expected to carry out the programme of greater Sangh control over the organisation. Not being an Advani man, he was expected to be a foil to Advani’s considerable hold on the party.
In the three years he has been in organisational control, Rajnath has helped the Sangh consolidate its hold on the BJP. The powers given to RSS-appointed Organising Secretaries at the Centre and the states have paved the way for the declining importance of politics and politicians in the BJP.
In facilitating the greater control of the Sangh over the BJP, Rajnath however took great care to try and consolidate his personal hold over the party. Rajnath practised a style of politics, borrowed from the political culture of UP, that was in sharp contrast to everything the party had known so far. The approach was contentious, ham-handed and exposed Rajnath to the charge of transforming the BJP from a broad-based party to a sect.
The first feature of Rajnath’s style is his inclination to rule through fostering divisions. The BJP had always prided itself on a vibrant inner-party democracy whereby all issues and decisions were debated and discussed threadbare in the top echelons at least. By convention, the party president always had the last word but the formulation of the last word was always a collective decision. Rajnath subverted the process in different ways. Lacking the necessary intellectual self-confidence to argue his measures through, he attempted a divide-and-rule approach and more often than not bypassed the core committee completely. After the UP Assembly election debacle, for example, Rajnath prevented any discussion on the subject for fear that it would show him in an unfavourable light.
The bid to divide the party into “us” and “them” led to growing unilateral interference in the affairs of the states. In the early part of 2007, there began a concerted campaign—encouraged by a section of the RSS—to destabilise and, if possible, secure the removals of Narendra Modi and Vasundhara Raje as Chief Ministers. Modi, in particular, was the victim of a full-fledged caste revolt and had to strain every nerve to win the 2007 Assembly election. Vasundhara proved less adept at outflanking the rebels and inner-party sabotage cost her the 2008 Assembly election. It is interesting that those who are today in the forefront of the anti-Vasundhara campaign were those who were the most active dissidents against the Chief Minister in the period the BJP was in power. After the 2008 defeat, the BJP came to the correct conclusion that inner-party factionalism made the crucial defference between victory and defeat. But when all those guilty of internal sabotage are sought to be subsequently rewarded by the national party president, the charge of factional squabbles being a centrally-sponsored scheme assumes greater validity.
It was a similar push from Delhi that lay behind the move to remove Sushil Modi as Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. The revolt, which received open backing of people in the party president’s office, would have succeeded had it not been for the decision to take a vote of the party MLAs. In the vote, Modi prevailed quite decisively.
Likewise, former Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri had the support of a majority of BJP MLAs in Uttarakhand. However, he lacked the perspicacity to take on both the dissidents and their backers in Delhi. He resigned in disgust.
The inclination to subsume what is good for the party to what is good for his factional wars is a hallmark of Rajnath. The BJP lost the 2009 election because, in the ultimate analysis, the voters showed insufficient confidence in the leadership of Advani. However, in ensuring the magnitude of defeat, Rajnath played his own hand. He soured the relationship with Kalyan Singh sufficiently for the former chief minister to walk out over a trivial matter; he nullified the possibility of Babulal Marandi returning to the party in Jharkhand; he encouraged the hotheads in Orissa to the point that Naveen Patnaik decided to go it alone; he went out of his way to endorse Varun Gandhi and provoke an urban backlash against the party; and he ensured organisational atrophy in UP. After the election was lost, he decided it was time to put the knife into Arun Jaitley by encouraging a variety of leaders to speak out against him. The idea was to enmesh Jaitley into controversies and ensure he was ruled out as a possible candidate for the president’s post. There are suggestions that the party president’s henchmen were behind the leak of the unsigned document that has been mistakenly attributed to Bal Apte. Now, with his term approaching an end, Rajnath has ensured the derailment of organisational election in a sufficient number of states to continue holding office till July/August 2010.
However, it is pertinent to point out that Rajnath has escaped his share of the responsibility for the 2009 defeat because of Advani’s unfortunate decision to continue as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Had Advani stuck to his original decision to step down, it is certain that his moral authority in the party would have been paramount. Without holding any post, Advani would have been in a position to ensure a smooth succession to the next generation. By persisting as Leader of Opposition, he has made himself vulnerable to sustained sniper attacks and ridicule that have cumulatively eroded his political authority. The net beneficiary of Advani’s persistence has been Rajnath. It has allowed him to deflect his share of responsibility and, more important, to undermine the importance of all those who were nurtured by Advani.
Throughout his political career, Rajnath has demonstrated a political wiliness that has marred the fortunes of the party but allowed him to climb up the leadership ladder. The RSS bears some responsibility for allowing the BJP to be derailed to a point that its very survival as a meaningful entity is now being called into question. Had the RSS played its role as a moral and ethical guide, Rajnath would not have dared lighting bush fires at every point and then pretending to look on innocently. Instead, it chose to believe in its own infallibility and chose not to recognise that it had been guilty of a grave misjudgement in 2006. Even now some Sangh functionaries are pressing for a constitutional amendment that will result in Rajnath securing another term as president.
If that happens, the BJP that Rajnath will bequeath to his successor will be a letterhead. Even if he departs now his successor will have to perform a near-miracle to restore the lost glory of the BJP. In the annals of political management, Rajnath has demonstrated that nothing succeeds like failure.