Stratagems and Spoils. The BJP prepares to bet everything on Narendra Modi

By POORNIMA JOSHI
The Caravan, 1 July 2013
THE RUMBLINGS BEGAN just before the storm, and the wise men predicted its arrival with uncanny precision. In the first week of June, a few days before the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting in Goa, the veteran party leader and former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi placed an urgent phone call to Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, the second-in-command at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). At the upcoming meeting in Goa, the party planned to announce that the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, would be elevated to chair the party’s campaign committee. The purpose of Joshi’s call was to warn the RSS leader of the chaos that would ensue. “Aap baat keejiye Advaniji se,” Joshi said. “Jo ho raha hai theek nahin hai. Tamasha ho jayega. (Talk to Advaniji. What is happening is not good. There will be a public spectacle.)”

Only a few days earlier, the party patriarch LK Advani, whose opposition to Modi’s further ascension was hardly a secret, had demonstrated that he was willing to make his displeasure widely known. In a speech to BJP workers in Madhya Pradesh that would turn up in every newspaper the following day, Advani declared that the state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, had compiled a development record more impressive than Modi’s. Furthermore, Advani added, Chouhan had done so while remaining “humble” and “far from arrogance” like the party’s revered former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Advani’s message was not hard to decode, and BJP stalwarts like Joshi, as well as the RSS leadership, saw that it did not bode well for a Modi coronation in Goa.

Bhaiyyaji was appropriately alarmed by Joshi’s exclamations, and he promised that he would rush to Delhi to broker peace—and stall Modi’s anointment, if that was what it took to prevent a crisis. He arrived in the capital early in the morning on 7 June—but by that point, the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, had already sensed that forces were aligning in a last-ditch effort to prevent Modi’s appointment.

Advani believed that naming Modi campaign chief was tantamount to projecting him as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, a move he feared would split the BJP from its biggest ally, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). Singh was well aware of Advani’s position: the party’s top leaders had been debating the decision for months leading up to the Goa conclave, and Advani had warned the BJP president that there would be “adverse” consequences.

“Put a rider,” Advani told Singh. “Clarify that this is not an automatic precursor to his projection as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.” Advani also insisted that the party should appoint two campaign committees: one for the general election, which Modi could head, and another for the assembly polls taking place in five states this December, which he proposed former BJP president Nitin Gadkari would chair.

Advani’s push for Gadkari as a counterweight to Modi is a minor detail, but it nicely illuminates the multiplying intrigues and rapidly shifting allegiances in the BJP’s current game of thrones. Although he had championed the effort to forcefully eject Gadkari from the president’s chair last year—over the fervent objections of the RSS—Advani was later convinced that Gadkari had been the victim of a conspiracy to tarnish him with an orchestrated campaign of planted stories in the media. Inside the BJP, suspicions pointed to Arun Jaitley, the Rajya Sabha opposition leader, who is known within the party as “bureau chief” for the extraordinary influence he wields at two large-selling national dailies where his favourite journalists run political bureaus. Although nobody knows whether Jaitley was actually responsible for the stories, most people in the BJP, including Advani, believe that he was. Jaitley and Advani, who were once seen as pupil and teacher, have been in enemy camps since last December, when Advani put forth his acolyte Sushma Swaraj, the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha and Jaitley’s bête noire, as a nominee to replace Gadkari as president.

Advani now believes that Gadkari was mistreated, and should therefore be compensated. But like everything else in the BJP right now, Advani’s advocacy also had an ulterior motive: going to bat for the former party president was a way to score points with the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who is very close to Gadkari, his fellow Nagpur Brahmin.

After Murli Manohar Joshi’s phone call, it was agreed that Bhaiyyaji would meet Singh, Advani and others in Delhi to assess the mood in the party toward Modi’s promotion. But before Bhaiyyaji landed, Singh had already scooted out of town: he left for Goa early in the morning on 7 June, one day ahead of the start of the national executive meeting. Before the dissenters—including Advani, Joshi and Swaraj—could capitalise on any remaining hesitation within the RSS over Modi’s promotion, Singh signaled definitively that his loyalty lay with the Gujarat chief minister. “Modiji is the most popular leader in the BJP,” Singh told me when we met in Delhi a few days prior to the Goa conclave. “He is a victim of the media’s hate campaign, but people see the merit in him.”

By helping to ensure that Modi’s elevation was announced at the Goa conclave, Singh had in one stroke aligned himself firmly with the triumvirate that is currently calling the shots in the BJP: Bhagwat, Modi and the RSS joint general secretary Suresh Soni, who is the Sangh’s liaison to the BJP. They are joined by Ram Lal, the BJP’s organisation secretary—the RSS’s top nominee inside the party—as well as Arun Jaitley, who harbours his own ambitions for the top job but has decided to cast his lot with Modi.

Several of the dissidents, of course, have their own sights on the PM’s chair; others are understandably wary of Modi’s tendency to eclipse and marginalise any and all rivals to his authority. But they are united by their belief that projecting Modi as the party’s candidate right now is a needless risk—a move that drives away allies and turns a safe victory over the hapless Congress into a high-stakes gamble. One senior BJP leader, a former Cabinet minister, told me he had pleaded with Singh to delay the decision. “I asked him why he was pushing it—what was the hurry?” the former minister said. “He kept saying, ‘There is a lot of pressure, it cannot be stalled anymore.’ It was ridiculous, really. I told him he is the president of the party. No one could have done anything to him. He can’t be removed from his post, can he?”

After the public spectacle of Advani’s noisy refusal to attend the Goa meeting, and the BJP’s subsequent split with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U)—which ended the 17-year alliance between the two parties on 17 June—the dissidents are claiming some vindication. “There can be no doubt that this Gang of Four [a reference to Singh, Modi, Jaitley and Soni] have precipitated a disaster,” the former minister told me. “The JD(U) has left us, and Advani has openly expressed his reservations.”

Though the BJP president has been lavish in his public praise of Modi, his response to the Advani faction would be to insist that the choice was not his to make: the inevitable could not have been postponed. “Did you witness the slogans and the enthusiasm among the delegates?” one of Singh’s allies told me. “There would have been a revolt if we hadn’t made an announcement.” Even apart from the clamour for Modi from the rank-and-file, senior leaders at the meeting were certain that Modi himself would precipitate a crisis of even bigger proportions than Advani if he did not leave Goa without at least some prize in his pocket.

FOR SEVERAL AWKWARD DAYS, the party looked to be torn in half: on one side, a sulking Advani, a grim Swaraj, and a vociferous Murli Manohar Joshi; on the other, the victorious caucus of Singh, Jaitley, Modi and Lal. While Swaraj made a display of her reservations by arriving late for the office-bearers’ meeting a day before the national executive began (a delay explained by people close to Swaraj as “situational”), Jaitley went all out to signal his commitment to Modi. “Jaitley said that we should announce Modi’s name as our PM candidate,” the former Cabinet minister said. “Of course, he did it knowing fully well it could not be done immediately. As it is, Advani’s absence had given enough reason to Rajnathji to even avoid making the announcement regarding the campaign committee.”

While Modi and his allies—especially Singh—celebrated his appointment with the pomp of an election victory, with Modi delivering an Obama-style acceptance speech, the absence of Advani and Swaraj at the podium was glaring. Though the Modi camp, never short of confidence, would brush aside the media’s prurient interest in the BJP’s squabbling, it quickly became clear that the reverberations of Advani’s protest had spoiled the headlines.

On 10 June, two days after the Goa conclave, Advani dashed off a terse letter to the BJP president, resigning from his positions on the party’s parliamentary board, election committee and national executive. It was around this point that the RSS realised that Joshi’s prediction had come true: Modi had successfully been projected as the party’s new leader, but Advani was demonstrating his ability to loudly disrupt the proceedings. Nobody wanted to see what new public attacks he might launch against Modi.

That same day, as the queue of supporters outside Advani’s Prithviraj Road home grew longer, Mohan Bhagwat reckoned that something had to be done. Inside, a tearful Swaraj was pleading with Advani to withdraw his resignation, according to a party member who was present. “You did not even tell me,” Swaraj said. “We were all with you, Advaniji.” Rajnath Singh had left Delhi for Rajasthan, where he told reporters that there was “no demand to rescind the decision” to appoint Modi. But back at Advani’s house, a succession of visitors—including Gadkari, the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, and the former BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu—had come, one by one, to broker some sort of peace. Finally Gadkari called Bhagwat, who then spoke to Advani.

It is important to note at this point that while Advani had resigned from three of his posts, he had not offered to vacate the most important one, as chairman of the BJP parliamentary party—a position that was specially created for him by amending the party constitution in 2009. His apparent intention to continue in this post was an indication, for both Singh and the RSS, that Advani was not really serious about quitting the party; he was using pressure tactics, and would happily withdraw his resignation if they appeared to acquiesce to at least some of his demands.

Bhagwat therefore suggested he would come to meet Advani in Delhi, and urged him to calm down. (The Advani camp claims that the RSS sarsanghchalak further “promised Advaniji that the BJP’s PM candidate will not be decided without his concurrence.”) Bhagwat and Advani made a tentative peace and, following a hastily convened meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body, its 12-member parliamentary board, a unanimous resolution was passed rejecting Advani’s resignation. Advani assented, still hoping that Bhagwat would concede to his wishes for a second election committee and promise not to formally project a PM candidate without his consent.

On the morning of 20 June, Advani went to the RSS’s Delhi offices in Jhandewalan for the promised meeting with Bhagwat. According to an RSS source privy to the details of the discussion, the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was largely devoted to Advani’s complaints: the unacceptability of Modi as PM candidate, and the total disregard shown by Rajnath Singh to Advani’s cautionary advice about elevating Modi in Goa. Advani also pushed for he and Bhagwat to make the selection of the PM candidate—a decision in which he would like Singh, Jaitley and Soni to have as little influence as possible.

But what happened afterwards demonstrated that there were limits to how far the RSS would go to keep Advani in good humour. A brief statement issued by an RSS spokesman after the meeting suggested little more would be done to pacify Advani: it gave no assurances about Advani’s concerns and established that the RSS would maintain its authority over the decision-making process in the BJP. Later that day, when a Mail Today reporter asked M Venkaiah Naidu who the PM candidate would be, his response was blunt: “You all know who that candidate is.” In the same breath, Naidu cited a newly released Headlines Today poll to make his meaning even clearer. “According to the survey,” Naidu said, “63 percent people in Bihar believe Modi will make a better PM as opposed to 24 percent for Nitish. And these are the results when Modi hasn’t even begun campaigning there.”

JUNE WAS A TUMULTUOUS MONTH for the principal opposition party, but the end result is clear enough: Modi will lead the BJP into the next elections with the staunch backing of the RSS. Modi’s elevation may have precipitated a highly visible, political crisis within the BJP—for which Rajnath Singh has been blamed—but even after Advani’s protest, the decision that sparked the uproar has not been revoked. Given that the “last hurdle” to declaring Modi the PM candidate—that would be Nitish Kumar—has now been removed, it is only “a matter of time”, RSS and BJP insiders said, before the party makes an official announcement, which is likely to come after the assembly elections scheduled in five states this December.

While the Advani camp has been busy theorising about a “compromise formula” with the RSS, Bhagwat has been quick to clarify that Modi is his final choice. At an RSS function in Meerut on 18 June, one day after the JD(U) divorce, Bhagwat made a veiled reference to the “secularist” objections Advani and Kumar had put forth against Modi—the only national leader in the BJP who can be considered an icon of hard Hindutva in the same way Advani once was. “Whether somebody likes it or not,” Bhagwat said, “Hindutva is the only way to bring about change in the country. It is where the country’s respect lies.”

The sarsanghchalak has been voicing these sentiments for some time now, and according to RSS sources, Bhagwat’s message for the BJP is simple: what wins votes for the party is Hindutva and the “emotional issues” associated with it. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a mirage,” an RSS leader told me. “It was the Ram Janmabhoomi, Uniform Civil Code and abrogation of Article 370 that got us the votes in the 1990s.” In Modi, the party has a leader who already represents Hindutva, but with a new sheen of good governance and economic growth. “The idiom of Hindutva has now changed from Ram Janmabhoomi to Gujarat Shining and development, coupled with aspirations for a strong state, a stronger stance against Pakistan and China and zero tolerance towards terrorism. Secularists may moan against what was done to Sohrabuddin but there is a strong popular message that terrorists and anti-social elements will not be tolerated,” the RSS leader said. “So far as Advaniji is concerned, he should know that his days are over.”

The RSS is convinced that the BJP needs the services of the Gujarat chief minister, who excites the cadre and consolidates the party’s core vote. Against a wobbly and dithering Congress-led government, a strong leader with impeccable Hindutva credentials and a much-touted governance record does seem like a winnable alternative. The strongest promoters of this line within the RSS are Bhagwat himself, along with senior leaders like Suresh Soni and Ram Lal. Further behind-the-scenes support for Modi within the BJP comes from a trio consisting of the Rajya Sabha MP Balbir Punj, the former Swadeshi Jagran Manch activist and current BJP general secretary Muralidhar Rao, and S Gurumurthy, a free agent who wields considerable influence in the RSS—who often serve as interlocutors between the pro- and anti-Modi factions.

Indeed, one development that has become visible during the process that catapulted Modi to top billing among the BJP’s so-called “GenNext”—all of whose members are over 60—is that the RSS has asserted its undisputed authority over the party. Sensing that its political progeny has come of age, the mother outfit has set aside the two midwives who brought it to life: Vajpayee, who had already left the scene years ago for health reasons, and Advani, who is now being humoured as he fades into political extinction. It was Advani who represented the last serious challenge to the abrasive Bhagwat exercising full control over the BJP through his handymen Gadkari and Singh. Now the RSS chief is busy setting in motion processes—both political and divine—to accelerate Advani’s political demise and the rise of a new generation in the BJP.

On 21 June, Bhagwat arrived at a village called Sunehar, in Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh, accompanied by Indresh, a member of the RSS executive who was named in the National Investigation Agency’s chargesheet in the October 2007 terror attack on the Ajmer Sharif shrine. Bhagwat had come to Himachal to initiate a prolonged ritual called the ‘Bhrugu Sanjeevani Path’, which will be performed by a family of priests in Sunehar. “The hawan is being performed to gain strength at a national level and destroy the enemies,” a local RSS functionary told me. “We expect Narendra Modiji to participate in the hawan.” Because “the stars are not suitable” at present, the ritual will begin on 4 July, but the RSS chief clearly intends that the generational transition he is putting into motion should have the blessings of the gods.

ADVANI HAD LONG BEEN A FAVOURITE of the RSS, at least until his ill-fated decision to praise Mohammed Ali Jinnah on a visit to Pakistan in 2005. Even after this, the RSS—always a very pragmatic outfit—still assented to Advani’s projection as the PM candidate in 2009, just as they had once agreed to Vajpayee’s leadership in spite of their initial objections. But Advani could never truly repair his rift with the RSS, and senior leaders like Bhagwat had long since decided that a generational transition in the BJP was an absolute necessity. That had, in fact, been clear since the party’s shocking defeat in 2004, but no single leader had yet emerged to supplant Advani. After the bumbling experiment in “collective leadership” over the last four years, the RSS was convinced that a single strong leader would be needed, and in the last 12 months, Modi has clearly emerged as their choice. Bhagwat, meanwhile, has not been shy about signalling the Sangh’s dominant role in steering the transition.

Consider the statement issued by RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya after Advani visited Bhagwat on 20 June, which provides ample evidence of how deeply the RSS has become involved in the day-to-day functioning of the BJP: “In a detailed and candid interaction, Shri Advaniji conveyed his views on various developments in the country and the role of the party and the broad nationalist movement led by the Sangh. It was opined that several issues need further discussion and exchange of notes at various levels. Same will take place at appropriate time. Shri Bhagwatji also suggested that such useful exchange of views should continue in future also.” The talk of “exchange of notes at various levels” was a significant admission from the RSS, which has spent years insisting that it has no say in how the BJP conducts its business.

Indeed, the RSS, which always refrained from openly admitting its command over the BJP, has become much more vocal about the nature of its relationship with the party since Bhagwat took over in 2009. He was the first RSS chief to state publicly that the Sangh has a hand in selecting the BJP’s president, a fact he mentioned in a television interview not long before he hand-picked Gadkari for the role. Now it seems Bhagwat, who describes Modi as “a good man and a good friend”, has picked the Gujarat chief minister for PM.

Bhagwat’s close relationship with Modi is underscored by a connection between the two men that is described by the academic Nikita Sud in her 2012 book Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and the State: A Biography of Gujarat. Sud writes that the Gujarat chief minister was an ardent follower of Bhagwat’s father Madhukar, the first RSS swayamsevak deputed to Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat in 1940 to establish the Sangh in the state. In April 2009, only two weeks after Mohan Bhagwat was selected as sarsanghchalak, Modi paid public tribute to Madhukar Bhagwat at an event in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, the elder Bhagwat’s birthplace, calling him a pillar of the RSS who had been a great influence on the Gujarat chief minister during his days as a young pracharak.

The elder Bhagwat was a committed swayamsevak who helped build a strong foundation for the Sangh in Gujarat, a state characterised by the absence of progressive movements and the heavy presence of revivalist currents like the Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha. Though it was then politically dormant, the RSS in Gujarat grew into a potent cultural force, shaping public discourse and popularising the writings of VD Savarkar, Dayanand Saraswati, and KM Munshi. It was Munshi who, as a minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, laid the groundwork for the future Ram Janmabhoomi movement through his campaign for the “resurrection” of Gujarati and Indian pride by rebuilding the Somnath temple, which had been destroyed by Muslim invaders a thousand years earlier. (He was helped in this venture by another Gujarati Cabinet minister, Vallabhbhai Patel.)

As chief minister, Modi has capitalised on and further polished Gujarat’s unique brand of Hindutva, which provided the foundation for the BJP’s political dominance in the state—and the shared memory of the specific context in which the movement first flourished there has cemented the bond between Modi and Bhagwat. Their close relationship, along with Modi’s own background in the RSS, has helped insulate him against the fierce criticism he has faced from the state units of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS farmers’ front; it has also diminished the fallout from Modi’s vicious campaign against Sanjay Joshi, an RSS full-timer who was a powerful BJP general secretary before Modi hounded him out.

Any lingering questions about what some in the Sangh regarded as Modi’s excessive “individualism” were settled, according to RSS sources, during an important meeting in Nagpur on 21 October 2012, in which Modi gave “an assurance of his continued allegiance to the RSS.” Modi held discussions with Bhagwat, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Suresh Soni, and others. “This was a meeting in which a promise was extracted from him,” an RSS leader told me. It’s not clear what that promise was, but whatever Modi said reassured the RSS of his good intentions, and not long thereafter, he proved his mettle once again by winning his third election in Gujarat. The RSS is now convinced that without him, the BJP will flounder, and likely lose its organisational support base and ideological distinction. “They are looking at the larger picture,” the RSS leader said. “The BJP has no leader at the top with a mass base or ideological leaning. It is important that the centre holds and for that to happen, Modi is needed.”

Even as the RSS promotes Modi as the face of the BJP, the organisation has taken steps to ensure its presence is increased at every level within the party, inserting several amendments in the party constitution over the last half-decade to create more posts for its nominees. The BJP’s national organisation secretary, Ram Lal, a direct RSS nominee, now has two joint general secretaries, both RSS nominees, serving under him. In addition to Lal, the Sangh also has another representative among the party’s general secretaries, the former Swadesh Jagran Manch functionary Muralidhar Rao. The BJP has begun to appoint zonal organisation secretaries, as the RSS has long done, and the unspoken assumption is that these posts too will be filled by RSS men.

What Modi will do at the head of the party still remains to be seen. But for the moment, he is certain to go along with the wishes of the RSS—which means avoiding further clashes with other top BJP leaders, paying obeisance to the Sangh, and ceasing any conflict with his old antagonists like Pravin Togadia and Sanjay Joshi—because it suits him to have the RSS completely on his side while he fights his way to the top of the BJP.

MODI’S ASCENSION MAY HAVE DISPIRITED his erstwhile rivals in Delhi, but they are not without strategies of their own. Political alignments at the top of the party are rapidly shifting, and the members of what has come to be known (often derisively) as the ‘Delhi Club’—Advani, Swaraj and Jaitley—are all maneuvering to ensure they are well-situated should Modi fail to deliver the wave his supporters expect.

While they may resent the rise of the unstoppable force from Gujarat, the most critical factor keeping aspirations alive in the Delhi Club is simple electoral arithmetic. None of the three is indifferent to the fact that ‘acceptability’ to potential allies will be the essential criterion for any leader wishing to become PM after an election whose outcome is far from certain. The party organisation is still weak in Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats, while the winning alliance with Nitish Kumar in Bihar, with 40 seats, has been broken in the wake of Modi’s promotion. The BJP has a negligible presence in states representing more than 152 seats, including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the entire Northeast, except a few seats in Assam. While the party will undoubtedly do well in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which represent 105 seats between them, it is certain to lose seats in Karnataka.

In this situation, the BJP risks finding itself unable to assemble the allies needed to form a majority with Modi at the helm. This is the Gujarat chief minister’s biggest weakness, and a point of relative strength for all the members of the Delhi Club—especially Advani, who has learnt at much personal cost that the BJP is not capable of winning the 272 seats required for a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own. Advani also knows that many top leaders in the party, as well as several of its regional satraps, are uneasy about the prospect of an uncompromising autocrat like Modi taking control of the party’s command structure and dousing their own future aspirations. No one in Delhi—including Modi’s close friend Jaitley—is eager to be engulfed by his larger than life persona. Finally, Advani, Swaraj and Jaitley all know that the allies will seek a ‘compromise’ PM before agreeing to join the BJP if it emerges as the single largest party without having enough votes to insist on Modi.

This same electoral calculus was surely on the mind of Nitish Kumar, whose decision to part ways with the BJP was ultimately political rather than ideological, in spite of his recent speeches about secularism. The BJP has never won more than 182 seats in a Lok Sabha election, and if it cannot top that figure in 2014, its putative allies may be in a position to demand an alternative to Modi—or, Kumar presumably hopes, to put forth one of their own for the position. The other regional parties who might consider an alliance with a Modi-less BJP—like the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, or the Telegu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh—are also eyeing the electoral arithmetic.

Within the BJP, such discussions are already taking place, despite the dominant view that Modi can lead the saffron forces to a sweeping victory. “We are looking at three scenarios,” a BJP leader in the Modi camp told me. “The first is that the BJP gets anywhere between 150 and 170 seats, in which case we form a government without Modi. The second is that we get anything between 170 and 190 seats. In this case, we form the government with or without Modi. And the third, of course, is that we get over 200 seats, in which case the PM will be the leader who got us this unprecedented windfall. And that would be undoubtedly the face of the elections—Narendra Modi.”

If the BJP falls short of its goal, Advani has positioned himself as the most acceptable face for the party’s reluctant allies: newly ‘secular’ leaders like Kumar will need a figure like Advani to return to an alliance with the BJP, especially after dumping them beforehand to protect his chances with Muslim voters in Bihar. This is why Advani, despite Bhagwat’s efforts to keep him from causing further trouble, continues to loudly extol the virtues of “consensus” and “alliance politics”. At a function on 21 June to pay homage to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Advani kept up his rhetoric, pointedly noting that “Syama Prasad Mookerjee brought Orissa Gantantra Parishad leaders to the party’s first national convention. This was a move to befriend anti-Congress political forces.”

IN THIS ENDEAVOUR, Swaraj has thrown her lot in with Advani, who—as his personal website asserts—is still firmly of the view that his “journey continues”. The improbability of staking his claim for the top job at the age of 86, with the RSS against him, does not seem to dampen Advani’s enthusiasm—and though his attacks on Modi have won him the eternal loathing of the Gujarati strongman’s most rabid fans, if the Modi wave fails to deliver, he remains in position to capitalise on the BJP’s shortfall. What seems more puzzling is that someone as politically adept as Swaraj should stand so close to Advani as he pursues his lifelong fantasy of becoming prime minister. But there is certainly something in it for her: playing second fiddle to Advani already got her a nomination to be BJP president earlier this year, though she declined to pursue it because she correctly sensed the RSS was resistant to accepting Advani’s suggestion. And while Advani may not manage to become the PM, if Modi does not bring in enough seats, he will still retain veto power over the selection.

For the time being, Swaraj has made no public displays of her own ambitions. But several factors may play in her favor: she is an MP from Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan will soon be contesting elections to win his third term in office. The BJP is on a strong footing in the state, and confident of securing a majority in the assembly as well as expanding its tally of Lok Sabha seats. So Swaraj’s strategy seems to be to strengthen her popular base, consolidate her support in the party ranks, and build bridges with the RSS—a patriarchal organisation that will require a lot of convincing before seriously considering a woman for the top job. She will not voice her reservations about Modi, but her mentor Advani has already done that. All she has to do is sit back, campaign like the loyal party soldier she is, and bide her time. The Modi trump card may not work, after all.

While Swaraj remains silent on Modi, her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, may occupy the most extraordinary strategic position in the BJP. He is seen as Modi’s closest friend in Delhi, and yet he also hosts Nitish Kumar for dinner at his mansion in Kailash Colony. Jaitley and Kumar have been friendly since the time when both were active in the anti-Emergency movement, and they grew closer when Jaitley was made the BJP’s in-charge for Bihar in 2004.

Jaitley also has enviably close ties to the RSS: he has had a strong connection with the Sangh dating back to his early days in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS student wing, at the Delhi University. In fact, during Rajnath Singh’s earlier term as BJP president, from 2005 to 2009, he was constantly outmaneuvered by Jaitley, who was close to the RSS’s liaison to the BJP, Suresh Soni. Singh tried his best to wean Soni away from Jaitley by getting Soni’s close friend and associate Prabhat Jha elected to the Rajya Sabha, but this had a limited impact. In fact, concern over Soni’s partiality toward Jaitley is seen as the reason why the RSS recently decided to appoint an entire panel to supervise BJP affairs, rather than a single person—the first time such an arrangement has been put in place.

For Jaitley, these are significant equations in the run-up to an election that one former BJP state president insisted would see either Modi or Kumar as the front runner to become PM. “There is no question that Modi will be an important factor in the elections,” the former state president said. “Under his command, we can either sweep or lose out completely. But in either case, we will still be ahead of the Congress and most certainly be the single largest party.”

If the BJP has enough seats to form the government, but not enough to install Modi as prime minister, Jaitley’s ties with Kumar will help him immensely in consolidating support to become PM. But if Modi manages to lead the BJP to more than the historic high of 182 seats, and becomes the PM himself, he will still need friends in Delhi, where Jaitley is a powerful ally with clout in the media and the corporate world.

Even if the Modi magic falls far short, this person argued, the BJP will still have enough seats to edge out the Congress and form the pillar of a third front. In this situation, he suggested, Nitish Kumar could become prime minister, with a BJP leader serving as deputy PM: “In all likelihood, that leader will be Arun Jaitley.”

IN THE AFTERNOON ON 21 MAY, a convoy of gleaming SUVs pulled through the gates of a nondescript bungalow on Ashoka Road in central Delhi, depositing the Gujarat chief minister at the door of Rajnath Singh’s official residence. Advani, Jaitley, Joshi, Swaraj and the other members of the BJP’s parliamentary board had retired to their respective homes after a tiring meeting at party headquarters, but Modi continued on for a lunch with his party president. The two men retreated to a tiny, maroon-curtained room to partake of delicious fare that the women of the house dished out in steel thalis, tiny bowls laden with aromatic delights, little chapatis that arrived hot off the stove, and home-grown mangoes fresh from Singh’s orchards in rural Uttar Pradesh. It had been a busy day in Delhi for Modi, who was clearly trying to signal his humility with a series of visits to party elders, stopping in to see Advani, Vajpayee and—to everyone’s amazement—even the beleaguered Gadkari.

While Modi may now be the presumptive choice as PM candidate, with Advani, Jaitley and Swaraj each maneuvering to keep their own ambitions alive, Singh has positioned himself as a putatively neutral arbiter, looking out for the party’s best interests without considering his own. But he too has one eye on the top job, a quiet ambition nourished in part by his belief that greater things are fated for him. The BJP president has a staunch Hindu faith in rituals, destiny, horoscopes and astrology—so much so that his most trusted political advisor, Sudhanshu Trivedi, happens to be an astrologer of some repute. Trivedi is said to have examined the horoscope of every top BJP leader, and his continued association with the BJP president speaks volumes about his faith in his leader’s fate.

In response to questions about his own ambitions, the BJP president simply cites the Gita and clasps his hands heavenward. “If I want to be PM,” he said, “then who will decide who gets to be PM?” But Singh’s demurral conceals both his ambition and his faith that he was born for bigger things in life. As some within his circles boast, “Rajnathji has got where he has because of his stars. He is an extraordinarily lucky man.” The stars have undoubtedly been kind to the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. After edging out a crowd of formidable rivals when he was first nominated to become BJP president in 2005—including Advani, Swaraj and Jaitley—he managed to secure a second term for himself in January, without even appearing to have tried.

To talk of Singh’s good fortunes, however, is to miss the point: obviously such feats require more than just a few strokes of luck. The reality is that cunning and a talent for strategic posturing have brought Singh into his present position, as a leader against whom nobody has a strong objection—a kind of harmless clodhopper with a blind loyalty to his recruiting agency in Nagpur.

Singh claims that he has no ambition but to bring the BJP back to power, and projects this acquired nobility of purpose on all others. “Where is the race in the BJP for becoming prime minister?” he said when we met in April. “None of us can deny that Narendra Modi is an extremely popular leader, but Narendra Modi has never told me that he should be projected as PM.”

“No, I am serious,” Singh added, as if to register the skepticism his claim would naturally evoke. “I have met him several times and speak to him regularly on the phone. He never told me he wants to be PM. We are all working together.”

Though Singh has since allied himself with Modi’s concerted push for top billing, on the face of it the two men make unlikely partners: the modestly furnished government bungalow that Singh inhabits in New Delhi has an ambience far removed from the tech-savvy high-decibel clamour that emanates from Modi’s Ahmedabad war room. Here, the presiding atmosphere is one of rustic domesticity, with daily visits from hundreds of dhoti-clad, paan-chewing denizens of the Hindi heartland, who patiently sip oversweet tea while waiting for an audience with their small-town conqueror of the big city. They identify with Singh’s provincial sensibilities and his carefully maintained rural image: Singh’s crisp cotton dhoti-kurtas make him the only member of the BJP’s “GenNext” who still prefers what used to be the standard uniform of the Cow Belt politician.

Marketing rusticity is an old trick, one executed to perfection by the self-proclaimed bumpkin Lalu Prasad Yadav. But Singh’s “son of the soil” act is not half bad. When Sonia Gandhi resigned her Lok Sabha seat in March 2006 during the short-lived controversy over her occupying an “office of profit” as chairman of the National Advisory Council, the BJP held an emergency meeting to figure out how to counter what was being hailed as her second great sacrifice, akin to her dramatic decision to refuse the PM’s chair after the Congress election victory in 2004. A strong response was required, but the usual strategists were coming up short. Jaitley put forth suggestions like “Sonia’s self-goal” and “she has scored a hit wicket”, while Advani tried to think up some popular term that would unmask the Congress’s propaganda. But it was Singh who devised the line that would have the most powerful resonance in the Hindi heartland: “Fisal pade to har har Gange”—that Gandhi was trying to turn an accidental slip into the Ganga into a holy dip.

Although Singh lacks the easy affability that his ideal, Vajpayee, possessed, he has shown an enviable ability to get along with the fiercest of his critics. The sudden warmth now visible between Singh and his two newest allies—the posh lawyer Jaitley and the ambitious and aggressive Modi, whom Singh had removed in 2007 from the party’s parliamentary board—is further evidence that what he lacks in political talent he makes up for with perseverance.

Jaitley has never concealed his big city disdain for Singh’s provincial ways, including his obsession with astrology, stars, mantras and other ritualistic mumbo-jumbo. Singh’s first term as BJP president was marked by frequent demonstrations of Jaitley’s barely disguised contempt for his leadership. News items mocking the BJP president often appeared in English-language dailies known to be favourable to Jaitley—whom Singh had removed as the head of the BJP’s media department—and an open feud erupted between the two leaders in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Jaitley boycotted the meetings of the party’s election committee because Singh had appointed Sudhanshu Mittal, a former ABVP office-bearer and confidant of the late Pramod Mahajan, as coordinator for elections in the north-eastern states. Jaitley detests Mittal and saw his appointment as a direct attack.

Six months into his second term, however, Singh has more than made up for lost ground. He has positioned himself as one of the three leaders, along with Modi and Jaitley, who will set the party’s political strategy in the months to come. His political advisor, Trivedi, has now been appointed as a BJP spokesperson, and can often be seen taking Jaitley’s advice. Whether he’s dealing with Swaraj, Jaitley or Advani, Singh has worked strenuously to cultivate a level of civility that is routinely absent in the interpersonal relations of the party’s top leaders. As things stand, Jaitley and Singh work together, and Singh, in turn, works with Advani and Swaraj.

As the party president, Singh has positioned himself as a consensus-builder—a leader who walks the middle path and carries everyone along, just as Vajpayee once did. The analogy is not an accidental one: Singh, like the other members of the Delhi Club, is acutely aware that while Advani rode the chariot to Ayodhya and dragged the BJP from the fringes to the mainstream of national politics, it was Vajpayee, with his ‘moderate’ persona, who got to be prime minister.

With that in mind, Singh has been happy to let Modi assert his primacy. In March, at the party’s first national executive meeting after Modi’s victory in the Gujarat assembly elections, Singh accorded a “special welcome” to the third-term chief minister, calling him the party’s “most popular” leader, and ensuring he was greeted by a standing ovation. Subsequently, he inducted Modi into the parliamentary board—and scuttled Advani’s attempt to balance against Modi by keeping Shivraj Singh Chouhan out of the party’s highest decision-making body. Not only has Singh made Modi’s confidant and former Gujarat home minister Amit Shah one of the party’s general secretaries—the second-most powerful rank in the BJP’s organisational structure after the president—he has given Shah charge of managing elections in the critical state of Uttar Pradesh. And last but not least, Singh held out against Advani’s vocal objections and announced Modi’s appointment as election committee chief at the national executive in Goa last month.

Advani has since blamed the JD(U)’s split from the BJP on Singh, while Advani’s former political aide Sudheendra Kulkarni has publicly accused the BJP president of using Modi as a proxy for his own ambitions. In an opinion piece for the website Rediff on 17 June, Kulkarni wrote that “a foxy party president, who has his own astrologically-induced delusions of becoming India’s Prime Minister, has allowed himself to be prodded and dictated by vested interests to undermine Advani’s position in the BJP.”

Of all Singh’s many machinations, none has been foxier than his appointment of Amit Shah—Modi’s trusted lieutenant, who is still facing murder charges over a fake-encounter killing in Gujarat—as the party’s in-charge for Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP must reverse its declining fortunes to have any chance of winning in 2014. Given that Singh himself hails from eastern UP, the decision to hand over the state to Shah took many observers by surprise, though it was widely seen as a sign of Singh’s capitulation to Modi’s ambitions. But as one of Singh’s allies explained, there was a more sophisticated calculation behind the appointment. “If we do well, the party president can claim credit for spotting Amit Shah’s genius,” he said. “If we fail, then of course, Shah can be made the fall guy.”

But in either case, he continued, “no harm is done to the party president, who is himself considering moving his seat from Ghaziabad to somewhere else. No one is in a position to predict what is going to happen in UP. So the strategy would be to let Modi take over completely. No one—least of all the party president who did everything that was asked of him—can be blamed. It’s the same strategy that was adopted when Advani was projected as PM in 2009.”

PRUDENCE AND ADVANI MIGHT HAVE DECREED that breaking alliances would spell bad tidings before an election. But those who keep the faith in the BJP have more or less succeeded in convincing the party’s decision makers that when you play a card, you have to play it to the hilt: name Modi as the PM candidate now, and see how many seats the party manages to win. Questions of secularism and moderation, they argue, are false banners raised only when the BJP doesn’t have enough seats to form a government. When the BJP has the numbers, the allies will come on board.

“Once we have crossed the 160 mark, you will see a lot of arguments being formulated not just in favour of the BJP, but a BJP led by Narendra Modi,” a BJP member of Parliament told me. “If there is a clear projection of Narendra Modi and the party closes ranks behind him, the BJP will storm the Lok Sabha with over 200 seats.”

But the former BJP Cabinet minister argued that this was “wishful” thinking. “I have said in Modi’s presence that it would send really wrong signals if we allow Nitish Kumar to walk away,” he told me. “We have no movement like Ram Janmabhoomi on the ground. We should keep all the friends together.” Regardless of such warnings, the BJP is now headed to the polls with only the Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal, which between them won 15 seats in 2009. There is little hope to forge any new alliances before the elections—and everything will hinge on Modi’s ability to swing the national mood.

In Bihar, where the BJP has been ejected from the ruling coalition as a result of Modi’s ascension, there is a vocal camp with absolute faith that he will sweep the polls. The loudest among them may be CP Thakur, the former BJP state president and union health minister. No one else in the state has campaigned so vociferously for Modi’s projection as the party’s PM candidate: an unambiguous embrace of Modi, Thakur argues, is the BJP’s only chance at victory. “He is the tallest leader,” Thakur told me. “He motivates the cadre and presents a strong alternative. He should be projected as PM candidate—anything short of that will harm our prospects.”

Thakur worked tirelessly to convince the BJP’s leaders in Delhi that parting ways with the JD(U)—the inevitable fallout of Modi’s elevation, which Advani and the other dissidents hoped to prevent—would in fact be in the party’s best interests. “Let them go to hell,” Thakur said of the JD(U). “The more acrimonious our separation, the better it is for the BJP. Now no one can prevent Modi from coming to campaign in Bihar.”

The Bihar leader, in fact, may have contributed immensely to the party’s decision to make Modi its campaign chairman. At a formal meeting with Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Ram Lal on 18 April, long before the Goa conclave, Thakur and a handful of other Bihar BJP leaders strongly argued that Modi’s projection would be far more important for the party’s prospects in the state than sticking with the JD(U).

There are many others who share this view: failing to name Modi as the PM candidate, they argue, will only dilute the party’s message and diminish its appeal. “Modi is a polarising factor,” the BJP MP told me. “Some kind of projection has already happened in his favor, and we cannot deny that there is simultaneous polarisation on the other side [in the form of Muslim voters turning toward the Congress]. But Nitish Kumar has asked us a question very publicly, and we should give a clear answer. Modi should be projected PM at the earliest—otherwise we will confuse our voter.”

BUT THE BJP CANNOT AFFORD another spectacle like the one Advani created after Modi’s appointment as campaign chief; it may not have improved Advani’s standing, but it certainly harmed Modi’s image to have Advani, still seen as the party’s tallest leader, attacking him so openly. As a result, the RSS is determined to keep Advani in the fold, with the hope that any further explosions can be defused while the other holdouts are brought gently around to Modi’s inevitability.

To this end, Modi has been advised by his friends to curb his natural combative instincts and step up the charm offensive. “Even when he was here [in Delhi, as a BJP national secretary] Modi was a kadak (severe) kind of presence,” a senior BJP leader close to Modi told me. “But when you operate at the national level, you need to make friends and pacify the enemies. He has to keep his head down and take everyone along.”

Accordingly, in the face of Advani’s extreme provocation last month, the man infamous for citing Newton’s law of “action and reaction” in the midst of the Gujarat riots has exercised remarkable restraint. Modi loudly welcomed the withdrawal of Advani’s resignation, and made sure to pay a respectful visit to the party patriarch during his trip to Delhi on 18 June. After sitting with Advani, Modi spent an hour with the ailing Vajpayee, who had attempted to sack the Gujarat chief minister in the aftermath of the 2002 riots but was outmaneuvered by Advani, Pramod Mahajan and Jaitley—and who later blamed Modi for the BJP’s unexpected defeat in the 2004 elections.

Modi can be very focused when he wishes, and once he launched the charm offensive there was no looking back: after hopping from Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence to Vajpayee’s quiet bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg, he even stopped to see Murli Manohar Joshi, who had openly voiced his reservations to Modi’s elevation a month earlier at a BJP parliamentary board meeting with Modi in attendance. “We need friends and allies if we have to win an election,” Joshi said, according to a source at the meeting. “This should be an aggregate of all states with regional allies and a complete focus on the Congress’s misrule. This kind of individualism will not work.”

But Joshi, unlike Advani, will not make his reservations public. For the moment, he has decided to go along with the party’s decision. After Modi left his house, Joshi gave a gracious statement to a gaggle of TV reporters. “Modiji has come to Delhi to express his gratitude over his recent appointment as chairman of the BJP Campaign Committee at Goa,” Joshi said. “He has expressed his gratitude and said he is trying to fulfill the responsibility given to him.”

Modi’s modest act is not just about Advani: it’s a necessity if he wishes to convince the other top party leaders that they will not be vanquished as he rises, a widespread fear that he has to address, given his past propensity to erase competition. The fate that befell many of Modi’s BJP and RSS rivals in Gujarat—including Haren Pandya, Kanshiram Rana, Keshubhai Patel, Gordhan Zadaphia, Pravin Togadia and Sanjay Joshi—does not provide much encouragement for those considering Modi as the party’s new boss. Hence the sudden burst of congeniality, part of the strategy to “keep his head down and win friends”.

As the party debates the intricate calculus of projecting Modi as the PM candidate—weighing the costs and benefits of the expected communal polarisation, as well as the significance of losing the JD(U)—the Gujarat chief minister is also busy adjusting his personal style in accordance with these nuances. The effort is to camouflage his Hindutva credentials while simultaneously presenting an agreeable face to his skeptical colleagues in Delhi. One notable move in this regard was the Gujarat government’s decision in April to seek the death penalty for Modi’s former minister Maya Kodnani and nine others convicted in the Naroda Patiya massacre during the 2002 riots—which was seen in the BJP as a sign of Modi’s wish to appropriate a more acceptable image for the benefit of the party’s secular allies. Although that decision has since been put on hold, Modi’s apparent willingness to sacrifice one of his favourite colleagues for the sake of ‘secularising’ his reputation sent a clear message about the intensity of his ambitions for the top job.

This process of secularisation also requires that Modi not be seen too much among the saffron-clad Ram bhakts of the VHP, Bajrang Dal, and other organisations at the fringe of the RSS family. Accordingly, Modi refused to attend the VHP’s Dharam Sansad in early February, an event that saw a bare-chested BJP president dunking himself in the Ganga alongside an assortment of bearded godmen who comprise the Parishad’s core group.

The senior leader close to Modi argued that he has to “strike the right balance” between his Hindutva credentials and his reputation for good governance, while also promoting his caste identity. “Modi has been able to come out of the riots’ shadow and build himself as a development man,” the senior leader told me. “But the biggest factor that works in the Hindi heartland is caste. In a four-cornered fight like the one in UP, the winner is the one who manages to garner the support of at least two dominant caste groups.” For the BJP to have a serious shot at forming the next government, the senior leader said, the party has to do “spectacularly well” in Uttar Pradesh. “If he is able to combine his image as a strong leader who has a record of delivering good governance along with his image as a backward leader, we have a winning combination. It can work very well.”

“There is a groundswell for Modi in what I call the aspirational India, which wants faster economic growth, strong leadership as an antithesis to Manmohan Singh and clearly defined policy,” the senior leader said. “This is also the kind of voter that wants a strong anti-terror line, a tough stand on Pakistan and issues of sovereignty—a tough state. They do not want riots, violence, curfews and disturbance—factors that disable growth. Modi appeals to this constituency but he is still in the process of discovering what the right balance is.”

But the Modi faithful would argue that these are just fake formulations devised by Delhi leaders, which will only serve to damage Modi’s prospects. “If he starts trying to become a moderate leader now, he will lose his core constituency,” a source in the RSS argued. “This is what happened to Advani after the Jinnah controversy. The Maya Kodnani incident has not helped matters. Modi does not need a change of image. He has an emotional appeal for the BJP voter and that is what we need.”

The BJP’s situation today bears a strong resemblance to the party’s position around 1996, when it was riding high on religious fervour but could not attract the allies required to govern. It was only after the collapse of successive governments and the deployment of Vajpayee’s formidable consensus-building skills that the BJP was finally able to hold power in 1999 after two failed attempts. The Modi camp is betting that none of that will be necessary: they believe he has forged a new idiom for Hindutva, one that will appeal to both the party’s traditional base and the country’s undecided voters.

“India is urbanising at a rapid pace, and we have a young population that demands good governance,” the senior BJP leader close to Modi told me. “Modi has come to symbolise the aspirations of young India. Along with consolidating the core vote, this is the population that will swing the election in our favour.”

Considering that states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which show some of the lowest levels of urbanisation, carry enormous electoral weight, such arguments remain untested. But as the BJP prepares to project Modi as their candidate, the party looks more than willing to roll the dice.

“Go and tell the world who our leader is,” a BJP MP close to the RSS told me. “There has been enough squabbling over this issue. In the next elections, the BJP will see the emergence of Narendra Modi. We are betting on him.”


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