COVER PHOTO: ROHIT CHAWLA
The Vasundhara Raje episode in Rajasthan has exposed the many strains in BJP-RSS relations, says ASHOK MALIK
Vasundhara Raje’s revolt shows the inability of Nitin Gadkari to let popular state leaders be
THE RSS,” a senior BJP leader once said in a moment of exasperated resignation, “needs to decide whether it wants to influence the politics of India. Or run the politics of the BJP.” Variations of the frustration and anger in that statement were on offer this past week when Vasundhara Raje, former chief minister of Rajasthan, rebelled against her party and against what she considered the local Sangh unit’s obduracy.
Vasundhara’s revolt led to 56 of the BJP’S 79 MLAS in Rajasthan offering to resign and presumably follow her into a regional party, should she so have decided. Her move came after Gulabchand Kataria, a senior party leader in the state and former home minister, announced a 28-day yatra and tried to project himself as a chief ministerial candidate. Rajasthan goes to the poll in December 2013, and the BJP is hoping to win. It is widely perceived that Vasundhara, the party’s most popular face in the state and the chief minister who lost power narrowly in 2008, could lead it to victory.
However, a section of the local party — backed by two senior Sangh officials in Rajasthan — has consistently targeted Vasundhara. In 2009, after the Lok Sabha defeat, this faction sought to get her to resign from the post of leader of the Opposition and, more or less, exile her from the state. It found a willing ally in the then BJP president, Rajnath Singh. Nitin Gadkari rebuilt bridges between Ashoka Road — the Delhi avenue that houses the BJP’S national headquarters — and the former princess of Gwalior, but some of her associates blame him for not nixing the Kataria idea early enough.
Subsequently, Gadkari and Arun Jaitley spoke to Vasundhara, assured her she would be the face for 2013 and that Kataria was barely a threat. They also told her the national Sangh leadership would stand by her. Nevertheless, the trust deficit was enormous. “There’s a 50-50 chance of a regional party being created,” a Vasundhara associate said in the early part of the week. Later, when the issue seemed to have blown over, this camp-follower still wasn’t convinced: “Let’s see. They’ll hit back. They’re determined.”
Vasundhara’s assertion of autonomy is not without precedent. Narendra Modi has done pretty much the same thing in Gujarat. Modi hardly communicates with Gadkari, whom he blames for rehabilitating Sanjay Joshi, his one-time rival, and for not standing up to Sangh pressure. In the state itself, the chief minister has made the Sangh’s frontal organisations irrelevant, and neutered their nuisance value.
Are Modi and Vasundhara aberrations or is their mood telling a story?
When political analysts and the media discuss Sangh- BJP relations, they tend to place the issue in the context of big ideological debates: what should be the philosophy of the party? Is Hindutva a contemporary idea? Day-to-day reality in the states is very different. In provinces where the BJP has a strong presence or is in government, Sangh office-bearers increasingly see themselves as power practitioners, alternative administrative authorities and deal-makers.
The chief ministers respond in different ways. Modi has turned out those he considers interlopers. Other chief ministers try and buy peace by cajoling the so-called Sangh elders — Vasundhara attempted this as well — but they have come to realise the
State leaders feel let down by the party leadership for its inability to back ‘politicals’ in their battle against Sangh busybodies
beast’s belly will never be filled. In states like Madhya Pradesh, where the Sangh network is robust, one-time RSS purists and moral monitors are down to playing fixers and money collectors.
WHILE OBVIOUSLY not a state within a state, the Sangh is the BJP’S version of a party within a party. As a BJP insider who is not from an RSS background puts it, “The Sangh’s first loyalty is to the Sangh. In a battle between an RSS man and a non- RSS man they will instinctively back the former.”
While this sense of club loyalty may seem commendable, it ends up creating a distorted world-view. It makes the Sangh suspicious, and wary, of mass leaders and popular figures, not because it necessarily prides institution above individual — though that suitably sombre reason is often cited — but because self-willed, robust and earthy politicians who can wave away its commands are not the types the RSS is comfortable with.
Years of interaction only within a closed circle — even if the circle is geographically spread across India — also promotes a groupthink mentality. There are actually people in the RSS family who believe Modi and Sanjay Joshi are mutually interchangeable and understand politics equally, all this only because several years ago they may have been pracharaks of similar rank in the same organisation.
The equation of Vasundhara and Kataria betrays the same failure. In the case of the Gujarat chief minister, one supposed RSS ideologue kept writing thundering articles in a Sangh publication accusing Modi of ideological heresy. In reality, he was seeking a political role for his son, whom he saw as a future chief minister, much like Modi.
When BJP functionaries bring up such contradictions, Sangh leaders obfuscate or pretend to look the other way — or respond with a suitable sanctimonious lecture. It is this hypocrisy and humbug that Vasundhara is refusing to succumb to. Her MLAS, being practical people, are siding with her because they realise her charisma and leadership skills can win them power — the Sangh’s mumbo-jumbo is of no consequence when it comes to voting decisions of normal people.
IT’S NOT just the Sangh. Popular state leaders feel even more let down by the party leadership in New Delhi, which seemingly unable to back the ‘politicals’ in their battle against Sangh busybodies. Both Gadkari and his predecessor Rajnath owed their jobs to Sangh nomination. Rajnath had been a chief minister; Gadkari was only a second-ranking Maharashtra politician — but like the Sangh top brass, a Nagpur boy — when he was chosen by Mohan Bhagwat, RSS general secretary, for the party presidency.
A leader appointed in such circumstances owes more to his appointing authority than to the party. Gadkari did better than Rajnath on this count but as the murmurs of a second term have arisen — Gadkari’s three-year stint closes at the end of the year — he has become careful and more anxious to please the Nagpur brotherhood. This past week, his confidants in the party and in the Parliament were openly telling people the RSS had blessed him with a second term, having forgiven his disaster in Uttar Pradesh as well as the Anshuman Mishra episode in Jharkhand.
There are many who despair that Gadkari simply doesn’t have the stature to be BJP president and that popular opinion thinks of him as a joke. Yet, this only adds to his utility for the Sangh. They can manipulate and manoeuvre him without the fear of being challenged, and count on him to pretend he is “balancing competing interests”, when all he is doing is refusing to back a stalwart regional leader against an RSS- promoted non-entity.
This scheming process helps the Sangh. How does it help the BJP? Vasundhara is not the only one waiting for an answer.
•• Front-runners Gulabchand Kataria (le) and Vasundhara Raje with her people