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Aditi Phadnis: The party with differences

Is the BJP headed into the sunset with Gadkari leading from the front?

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The of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) met in Mumbai on May 24 and 25. It was not just any old meeting of the Executive. It met to undertake a post-mortem on the UP debacle (the BJP’s seats went down from 51 to 47); to decide how to extend Nitin Gadkari’s presidential term; and to figure out a way forward for a party that has just 32 MPs from the six most important states – Uttar Pradesh (80), Maharashtra (48), Andhra Pradesh (42), West Bengal (42), Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39) – adding up to 291 Lok Sabha seats. Thirty-two seats represent 11 per cent of the strength of the House.

On the night of May 21, between 11 and 12 midnight, an emergency meeting of the party’s core committee had to be called. Those who attended were Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj, Venkiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh, and others. L K Advani was not present and Arun Jaitley was in Mumbai but had gone out.

The reason? Gujarat Chief Minister and party strongman Narendra Modi had issued an ultimatum: he would resign from the Executive and the National Council of the along with all the members from Gujarat if was not axed from the National Executive as special invitee.

It was an impossible situation. Jaitley was asked to negotiate. He offered a via media: what if Sanjay Joshi were to come to the meeting for a day and Modi on the other day? Some other alternatives were suggested. But Modi turned down all of them.

The core group was angry. They decided that if Modi wanted to stay away and quit the party executive and council, so be it.

But Gadkari offered to stoop to conquer. He told supporters: “Sanjay Joshi is my pal. I asked him to become special invitee at the Executive. If I say he should quit, he won’t mind.” At 1.30 a m, Gadkari called Joshi and told him to stay away from the National Executive and resign. Joshi metaphorically shrugged his shoulders and didn’t attend. Modi was in Udaipur, so he came to Mumbai 24 hours later.

The next day was the meeting to decide the extension of Gadkari’s term as president. The BJP constitution does not permit more than one consecutive three-year term for a president. The National Executive needed to move the amendment. Advani’s daughter Pratibha said her father was indisposed and would be unable to attend the meeting.

At the meeting itself, the stormy petrel of the BJP, J K Jain, raised his hand to speak. He began by saying he was opposed to amendments of the constitution for the benefit of a single individual. He was shushed up by Venkaiah Naidu. Party leader from Tamil Nadu L Ganesan and Dalit leader from UP Sanghapriya Gautam also opposed the move. None of them is considered the BJP’s brightest spark, though they are known to be outspoken.

At the public rally, Gadkari was sitting on the stage. He climbed off, waited for Modi to arrive, and got back on to it only after Modi had occupied it. His supporters said he wanted no indication that his second term was not blessed by Modi. But he tried to show he was his own man by announcing that Sanjay Joshi would be his campaign advisor.

That fell apart pretty quickly. Earlier this week, Modi called Gadkari and reminded him that he had promised to banish Sanjay Joshi from the party. He repeated his threat of quitting the party. “Instead of getting him to leave, you’ve piled on crucial responsibility on him [Sanjay Joshi],” Modi said.

A day later, Sanjay Joshi resigned — it is still not clear whether from the party or merely from his current charge. Apparently, posters in several towns in Gujarat in support of Sanjay Joshi made Modi absolutely furious.

The Modi-Joshi war has been BJP’s worst-kept secret. It involves sleaze CDs, carrying tales, sabotaging elections and issuing ultimatums. It dates back to the time the two worked together in Gujarat. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Chief Mohan Bhagwat is backing Gadkari (and his choice of lieutenants) to the hilt. Why? At one stage, Bhagwat told colleagues that he had little time for north-Indian politicians.

Advani, who has spent a lot of his life insulating the BJP from the RSS, lit into Gadkari – and the by implication – last week. In his blog he said the BJP needed to introspect on why it was drifting away from the people. Modi, meanwhile, has been the target of attack by all the RSS fronts.

The party is traumatised, at sixes and sevens with itself and is having to rely on the doubtful charisma of Ramdev and his assorted band of merry men. So where is India’s principal Opposition party headed? Into the sunset with Gadkari leading from the front? Leaders are now saying that though the BJP has amended its constitution, there’s no certainty that Gadkari will get the coveted second term in December (when the National Council is to ratify the decision of the National Executive). It all depends on how the party fares in the Gujarat elections.

That there’s a power struggle on in the BJP should be patently clear to everyone. But from currently available indications, the end result might be a generational shift in the BJP’s leadership. The Sangh is sending a message that any party leader above 75 will not be permitted to contest elections but will transform himself into a “mentor”. That means both Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi will not be able to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 — except that by then it might be too late for the BJP.

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