For all of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley’s claim that his party has a “galaxy” of leaders, it has had to fall back on an old and controversial warhorse, Rajnath Singh, for the second time to be the party chief.
What this means is that, in reality, the BJP’s cupboard is bare so far as members of leadership potential are concerned. Moreover, the potential embraces a whole gamut of complicating factors.
As a result, there is no easy ascent to the top. The BJP’s greasy pole, therefore, which is the phrase denoting upward mobility, is greasier than in most parties.
Nothing demonstrated the conflicting ingredients of the leadership battle than the rise and fall of Nitin Gadkari. If, in the Congress, the scions of the Nehru-Gandhi family parachute down to the top of the party pyramid, in the BJP, it is the patriarchs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who determine who will descend from above to take charge of the party.
The starkness of this choreographed procedure has been highlighted twice in Singh’s case. The first time was in 2006, when the then party president, L.K. Advani, was ousted by the RSS for committing the unpardonable sin — in the saffron brotherhood’s eyes — of praising Mohammad Ali Jinnah on a visit to Pakistan in 2005.
Even at the time, the choice raised eyebrows because Singh was — and still is — regarded as a “provincial”, the unflattering word used by Jaswant Singh when he was dismissed from the BJP for repeating Advani’s folly of lauding Jinnah in a book.
However, provincials are apparently the kind preferred by the RSS because they lack the faint traces of cosmopolitanism, which includes fluency in English, which the BJP leaders based in Delhi tend to acquire.
So, when Singh’s term ended in 2009, the RSS turned to another provincial in a state which is farther away from the national capital than Uttar Pradesh, which is Singh’s home province.
However, in choosing the little-known Marathi, the RSS had not considered how his business ventures would come to haunt him. The praise which a saffron scribe heaped on Gadkari’s business acumen when he became president is unlikely to be repeated now.
Even if there are leaders in the BJP who consider themselves capable of being the chief, the special predilections of the RSS keep a lid on their aspirations. So, it is not only the absence of secular credentials — which is a hindrance to someone like Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial hopes — but the penchant of the RSS for the less sophisticated which constitutes a roadblock before the party’s smooth functioning.
Gadkari’s involvement in a scam also undermines the party’s offensive against the Congress on the issue of corruption. Throughout the period when civil society activists were agitating on the subject, the BJP had to remain in the background because of the scandals surrounding its chief minister in Karnataka at the time, B.S. Yeddyurappa. Now, Yeddyurappa’s exit from the BJP will not help the party much.
The BJP’s hope, therefore, that its return to power will be facilitated by the Congress’ decline under the weight of corruption and policy paralysis may not be fulfilled. Not only has the party failed to fill its leadership vacuum caused by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s retirement, it has also been unable to firm up its economic policies as in Vajpayee’s time.
As much is evident from the role of a spoiler which it plays in the context of the government’s economic initiatives. As the BJP’s opposition to foreign investment in the retail sector, and earlier to the Indo-US nuclear deal, shows, it has opportunistically forsaken its traditional rightwing image and taken a leftward turn in the belief that “socialism” still has a future in the country.
However, the leadership wrangles, the taint of corruption and absence of clarity on economic issues are blocking the party’s forward movement. Whatever impetus the party had acquired from the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation has long been dissipated.
Although the recent upsurge among its cadres helped bolster several leaders in the states — Modi in Gujarat, Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh — they cannot move to the national level for various reasons, of which Modi’s disadvantage is well known.
The others cannot be elevated for two reasons. One is that it will create a vacuum in the states and the other is that their ascent will be resisted by the ambitious Delhi-based leaders — Advani, Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and others. In a way, therefore, Jaitley’s boast about a “galaxy” of leaders is true, but it is a liability rather than an asset.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.