Jatin Gandhi/ indiatoday
New Delhi, Mar 18, 2014: As reports emerged of the discordant chords he struck at the meeting of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Central Election Committee (CEC) on March 8, former party president Murli Manohar Joshi’s office hurriedly called a press conference the next day, a Sunday, at his Raisina Road home. The excuse? A meeting between Joshi and farmers’ representatives for the party manifesto he is putting together. The real reason? After triggering a mini-revolt in the CEC, Joshi wanted to clarify his position. Describing himself as a "disciplined soldier" who would abide by the party’s decision, Joshi said, "The decision will be taken by BJP’s parliamentary board. Our prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will be present there. I don’t think there will be any decision that will dent his prestige or lower the party’s prospects in winning the most number of seats."
The RSS had sent out a strong message the previous afternoon from Bangalore, where it was in the midst of a three-day Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, that the differences within the party should be muted before they slowed down the Narendra Modi wave. Everyone in the parivaar should bow to the aspirations of the people and acknowledge the desire for change in the country, it said. Joshi blamed the media for creating the impression that he had revolted. When asked to clarify his position on the Varanasi seat going to Modi, he said: "Whatever I need to say, I speak within the party, not to outsiders." That implied that he had indeed spoken up within the party.
A day earlier, as the party’s CEC sat to discuss lists of candidates, Joshi had accosted Rajnath Singh on media reports that Modi was preparing to contest from Varanasi, the seat Joshi holds in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Insiders say Joshi objected to the way he had had to learn from media reports that Modi would be fielded from Varanasi. "Why doesn’t the army of spokespersons refute these reports, Shrimaan?" Joshi reportedly asked him. The committee was not discussing distribution of tickets in Uttar Pradesh, but Joshi could not hold back his irritation.
As the discussion veered from ticket distribution to alliances being put together, an upset Sushma Swaraj objected to the departure from party convention. Swaraj said that while getting new people to join the party is the BJP president’s prerogative, alliances should have been discussed in the party’s highest decision-making body, the parliamentary board. Two days earlier, she had opposed BJP’s possible alliance with Badava Shramika Raitha Congress (BSR Congress) in Karnataka. "I have conveyed in writing to Rajnath Singhji that BJP must not permit this," she tweeted on March 6, after former Karnataka minister B. Sriramulu announced that his BSR Congress would merge with BJP. The Bellary mining barons-the Reddy brothers-and Sriramulu quit BJP when hit by a mining scam and floated the party in 2012 to take on BJP. The brothers were once close to Swaraj, but she broke ties with them after their arrests in cases related to the scam. Swaraj is worried the merger will be linked back to her and compromise the party’s anti-corruption stand. Having failed to stall Modi’s appointment as the prime ministerial candidate, Swaraj has been positioning herself as a post-poll alternative who stands firm on the issue of corruption.
There is growing unease among senior leaders at how this election is being fought. While Modi’s advent on the scene has galvanised cadres, the fear that he will swallow the party and those even slightly opposed to him has leaders working at cross purposes. The fear is compounded by the unhappiness about the opportunistic alliances with small and disparate outfits to boost NDA’s numbers, as also the way tickets are being distributed, all of which could affect the party’s prospects. The Congress has already taken the lead in declaring its candidates.
BJP lost the 2004 election to its utter surprise, sparking bitter infighting within the party. Five years later, it was unable to resolve the problems within and ended up losing more seats-from 138 to 116-to the Congress. Hoping to regain power on an anti-Congress wave this year, there are fears that infighting could blunt the advantage of the pro-Modi sentiment.
Swaraj also objected to Congress leader Venod Sharma joining BJP-ally Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC). Sources say her opposition to the corruption-tainted Chautalas-INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala and his son Ajay-has ensured that BJP is treading slowly on an alliance that had almost been finalised. "Our only alliance in Haryana is with HJC," clarifies party General Secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad. That’s not all. Sources reveal that questions were raised in a meeting of top leaders over the wisdom of breaking ties with a politically robust Janata Dal United in Bihar and tying up with the weaker Lok Janshakti Party.
There is also considerable heartburn over former party president Nitin Gadkari meeting MNS chief Raj Thackeray to extract a promise of support for Modi. The MNS chief announced his party would support Modi after the results, but said it would field candidates against Shiv Sena. The result? Shiv Sena is outraged and BJP is running to placate its oldest ally. "What is the point of supporting Modi if MNS is going to fight against our allies?" says a party leader from Bihar. Gadkari’s meeting with Thackeray was a double whammy for the party, as MNS’s declared anti-North Indian stance in Mumbai raised fears that BJP would stand to lose votes in the crucial UP-Bihar region.
It is not just senior leaders who have been a source of trouble for BJP. After word got out that Joshi would be asked to move to Kanpur to make way for Modi, three seats-Varanasi, Lucknow and Kanpur-considered the safest bets for BJP in the state, have become trouble spots. Kalraj Mishra, who was in the running for the Kanpur seat, first raised the banner of revolt. While Rajnath Singh wants to contest from Lucknow-once represented by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-sitting MP Lalji Tandon issued a statement saying he would be happy to give up his claim on Lucknow, but only for Modi. "I’m the sitting MP from Lucknow and I’ve not been told of any such idea being considered by the party," Tandon, a close aide of Vajpayee, told journalists in Lucknow on March 10.
The CEC meeting on March 8 cleared a list of 52 candidates. Among them was former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who had left BJP after corruption cases surfaced against him, but has been welcomed back-despite opposition from L.K. Advani and Swaraj-after BJP lost the Karnataka Assembly polls in 2013. Advani had resigned in June last year from all party posts, to protest the manner in which decisions were being taken in the party. "For some time, I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going," he had written. Though he was forced to take back his resignation, the bitterness remains, and the words of his resignation letter accusing leaders of being "concerned only about personal agendas" ring true, as the polls draw close.
The problem is that once word gets out that there is dissent, it travels from the top all the way to the bottom," a senior party leader told India Today. "Modi himself does not want seniors sidelined one bit. But once the message spreads, there will be links drawn between the unease among party seniors at the manner in which senior leader Shankersinh Vaghela had been ousted in Gujarat, and Modi’s image will take a hit. This is a perception battle we can’t afford to fight at this stage," he adds. There are other perception battles that BJP may need to fight. If it is unable to placate Joshi and Mishra, its Brahmin voters in UP could get upset.
"There is a wave in Modi’s favour but we need workers and the lower rung of leadership to convert this wave into votes. Amit Shah should not have made a public declaration about Modi contesting from Uttar Pradesh," says the senior BJP leader. He adds that while Modi contesting from UP should be a big plus for BJP’s prospects in the state, the party could certainly have avoided the controversies.
The Varanasi seat has a direct bearing on 35 seats in eastern UP and adjoining Bihar. Shah’s plan would have been to boost the party’s prospects by goading Modi to contest from the seat. But his style of functioning has upset many lower-rung leaders in the state. "This is Shah’s first foray into UP. His style of functioning is different from what BJP’s state organisation is used to. Unlike Shah, big leaders in the past have always made smaller leaders feel part of the decision-making process," says a BJP MP from UP.
The state sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha. BJP had only 10 of those in 2009. This time, the party is hoping the Modi wave will make it the largest party in UP. The MP reveals that on at least 25 seats, the party will field "outsiders" (entrants from other parties into BJP). This is likely to cause more heartburn among local leaders. "The fireworks have just started," says a BJP Lok Sabha MP from the state who is obviously unhappy with Modi’s aide.
The unease is not confined to sections of BJP. Even RSS has an uncomfortable relationship with Modi, and is wary of his growing personality cult. Due to his individualistic style of functioning, as Modi grew taller in Gujarat, the RSS shrunk in a state that, along with Maharashtra, was once considered its largest social-engineering laboratory. While RSS has aligned itself with BJP in its bid for power, it doesn’t want its cadres to forget that they are not working for Modi but for the Sangh. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s closing remarks at the Bangalore conclave are a reflection of the Sangh’s fears. "Shri Bhagwat emphasised that RSS workers should keep in mind that they are not working for any political party but in the national interest," said Manmohan Vaidya of RSS. As the experience of the saffron organisation in Gujarat shows, these fears are not entirely misplaced.