K Subrahmanya, Deccan Herald
Bangalore, July 15, 2012: Inner-party democracy derailed: Sangh’s overreach has created leadership vacuum in Saffron party
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat and his predecessor K S Sudarshan will find this too bitter a pill to swallow: the 12 years the two “guided” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) affairs since the year 2000, they have systematically destroyed its leadership.
The pathetic state of the party’s leadership today is a direct offshoot of their overreach. Their overzealous remote controlling has spread chaos at the top. Worst still, their attempts at micromanaging have spread lawlessness in the BJP at all levels.
Today, as the latest round of bitter infighting in the Karnataka BJP unit shows, no state unit of the party really respects or fears the party central leadership. There are only too many leaders at 11, Ashoka Road BJP headquaters in the national capital. But there is neither a leadership nor a leader whose authority is respected and feared by the party rank and file.
How did this happen in a party that was once used to the strong leadership in A B Vajpayee and L K Advani? Avid BJP watchers would bear witness to a time when a Narendra Modi, as one of the party’s spokespersons, would weigh his words carefully for fear of inadvertently exceeding his brief from Advani, a B S Yeddyurappa would wait for hours to get Advani’s go-ahead on any issue concerning BJP affairs in Karnataka, a Vasundhara Raje would do everything to be on the right side of the Vajpayee-Advani duo. The veterans were father figures. Nothing would move in the party against their wishes. It worked well for the BJP.
If Vajpayee was respected, Advani was feared. Between them, they built the BJP from a two-member party in the Lok Sabha to being the country’s ruling party in less than 15 years. As the party sensed power in the early 1990s, its once-monolithic and ideologically driven approach was loosened to accommodate leaders from outside the Hindutva ideological fold to give it the winning edge. It did create contradictions in the party. Yet, the Vajpayee-Advani duo managed the contradictions to eventually wrest power at the Centre in 1998. The RSS duo of Sudarshan-Bhagwat, powerful even when Rajju Bhaiyya was the Sarsanghchalak, found it hard to accept this subtle shift from the Hindutva-centric politics to a power-centric politics of the party. But Rajju Bhaiyya shared a mutually respectful equation with Vajpayee and Advani as the three of them were contemporaries in their early RSS days. This perhaps restrained the RSS duo for the time being.
The trouble for the BJP began once Sudarshan took charge of the RSS in the year 2000 with Bhagwat as his second-in-command. Much of what happened may not yet be public knowledge, but media reports suggest that the duo had encouraged a Vajpayee-Advani rift in the party and the party-led NDA government for more influence and better control. There wasn’t much to doubt about the RSS hand in several critical media reports about Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra.
So too was Advani’s elevation as the Deputy Prime Minister. It was the beginning of a new phase of aggressive RSS remote controlling and micromanagement of BJP affairs. Yet, as the 2004 parliamentary elections approached, the RSS duo encountered resistance from Vajpayee and Advani. The two BJP leaders, who were both more accommodative of each other and realistic about the need to take BJP’s NDA allies along rather than alienate them, ignored pressures from the RSS on ideological issues.
If the Vajpayee-Advani combination came in the way of its scheme for the BJP, the Sudarshan-Bhagwat duo didn’t waste much time to dismantle this obstacle. The opportunity came soon after the BJP-led NDA’s severe drubbing in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections that was unexpected as well. The two RSS leaders publicly attributed the defeat to negative ideological tendencies in the party and then went on to openly announce that the time had come for the two BJP leaders to retire.
“Vajpayee should go and let new faces emerge. He should stay as a senior adviser only,” stated Sudarshan in an interview early in 2005. He went on to include Advani in his retirement list: “Both should go and let new leadership emerge.” By that time, however, the BJP was already beginning to feel the absence of Vajpayee’s active presence as he had retreated from active involvement due to his failing health. There were no such health issues for Advani, who was fit, agile as he shouldered the responsibilities of heading the party and the party’s parliamentary wing. But this certainly was not to the liking of the RSS bosses. Within months they found a contentious remark by Advani about Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah to hit him hard – a blow from which the BJP patriarch could never recover. Taking cue from the RSS leaders, one BJP leader after another questioned Advani’s leadership.
A mauled Advani was forced to quit as the party president. With the dramatic collapse of his authority also began a phase of lawlessness in the party. Until then whoever other than Vajpayee and Advani held the post of BJP president, had enormous advantage of the full force of the two leaders behind them to exercise the authority as party chief – be it Bangaru Laxman, Venkaiah Naidu or Jana Krishnamurthy. But not so this time when Rajnath Singh took over from Advani. With Advani not around to fear, and his seniors like Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley not too comfortable, Rajnath Singh could only depend on the two RSS bosses for authority.
The RSS bosses could do very little to prop up Rajnath Singh as an effective leader. As a result lawlessness spread to states – in Rajasthan Raje became to act like a satrap, Modi tightened his hold over Gujarat, in Maharashtra the party fissures came out in the open, a situation made worse by experienced tactician and senior leader Pramod Mahajan’s tragic death, the party’s decline got hastened in Rajnath Singh’s home state of Uttar Pradesh, and in Karnataka, the party’s gateway to the South, its first government was already becoming an embarrassment. The RSS did make a forced concession when by default it agreed to project a vulnerable Advani as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections – an election for which the party was neither prepared nor had any chance of putting up a credible performance. By this time the RSS baton also changed hands – from Sudarshan to Bhagwat, who was not even born when the likes of Vajpayee and Advani had already put in some years in the RSS.
What happened thereafter is nothing but a farce. Instead of taking responsibility for the inevitable Lok Sabha election defeat, Bhagwat convinced himself that the RSS should micromanage a faction-ridden, leaderless BJP. In a televised interview, Bhagwat called BJP leaders to end “infighting and disarray,” with a warning that “or else” the RSS would intervene.
Who created the leadership void that intensified infighting and a state of disarray in the party? Bhagwat wouldn’t introspect on the question. Within the BJP, four names were being discussed as possible successor to Rajnath Singh – Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, Narenda Modi and Arun Jaitley. One of them would have certainly emerged as an acceptable successor to Vajpayee and Advani. An internal democratic process in this regard would certainly have involved Advani in a big role. A leader so emerging would have established his/her credibility from day one.
But as it turned out, the top BJP rung had no say in deciding the leadership succession. Under Bhagwat, the RSS foisted a rank outsider as the party president in the form of Nitin Gadkari. There was no stopping chaos at the top and its rapid spread at all levels down below, as Gadkari remained ineffective and helpless, unable to win wide acceptance and trust of the rank and file. “No one can stand on top because he is put there,” it is often said. But Gadkari stands there and Bhagwat recently even forced top leaders of the party to amend the BJP constitution to give this Nagpur leader a second term in office, as though to perpetuate the leadership crisis in the BJP.