Debating India

BJP

A Family Gone Astray

Poornima JOSHI, Rajesh SINHA

Monday 28 June 2004, by JOSHI*Poornima , SINHA*Rajesh

Vajpayee fires another salvo, asking for Modi’s head. The vertical split in the Sangh parivar is near complete.

Brutus could not have done better. Still smarting from their defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, the last thing that the BJP top brass needed was another first-class crisis. And that is precisely what they have got. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee-until a month ago the undeniable party mascot-has landed the BJP into such a crisis by publicly raking up the issue of the Gujarat riots for the second time in a week. Barely two days after the party had issued a clear rebuff to Vajpayee by contradicting him on the touchy Gujarat issue, he reaffirmed his position on June 17. The sign of a vertical split within the BJP between the so-called moderates and the hardliners coincided with a reassertion of Vajpayee as the supreme leader of the party.

Leaving for the cooler climes of Manali after a difficult election campaign which ended in defeat and a stormy but short parliament session, Vajpayee gave out nary a hint of what was coming. In a carefully televised TV interview, he said what the Sangh parivar did not want to hear: the blame for the electoral defeat lay with Narendra Modi, the roundly reviled Gujarat chief minister. When the Sangh pantheon hit back the same day, rather rudely trashing what Vajpayee had said, there was clearly a storm waiting to happen. Before the week died out, Vajpayee hit back again, insisting Gujarat will be discussed at the party national executive meeting in Mumbai. "We will discuss Gujarat in Mumbai. We will discuss it with an open mind. We discuss (such issues) both after victory and defeat. We will not be afraid of discussions," he told a public meeting in Manali on June 17.

Even the habitually critical RSS leaders have come around to saying Gujarat can be discussed. Only, they don’t want the riots to be linked to the election results. But it indicates how jittery the Sangh is about Vajpayee making Gujarat an issue in the party’s crucial two-day national executive meeting in Mumbai on June 22. And this is precisely what Vajpayee is planning to do. Despite party chief Venkaiah Naidu veering towards the RSS line, saying that sacking Modi or a discussion on Gujarat were not part of the agenda, Vajpayee’s quiet resilience carried the day.

So stunned was the BJP when Vajpayee made his June 17 assertion on Gujarat that most of its leaders, including garrulous party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, went into hiding. Even Naidu made no attempt to clarify. When contacted by Outlook, he pleaded ignorance: "I do not know anything about what Vajpayeeji has said." Naidu’s refusal to react is seen as an indication that the BJP top brass is chary of engaging in a public duel with a resolute Vajpayee.

Now the party crisis managers have swung into desperate action. Party sources say that senior leaders L.K. Advani, Naidu and RSS general secretary in charge of the BJP, Madan Das Devi, may meet Vajpayee on Sunday, June 20, a day after he returns from Manali. Though the official line is still that the issue of Gujarat and chief minister Narendra Modi’s ouster is not part of the agenda for the national executive meeting, sources in the party say both these issues are likely to be discussed and "crucial decisions" might be taken either before or soon after the Mumbai meet. Does that mean a decision on Modi’s ouster will be a placatory gesture to Vajpayee to save the party the public spectacle of an internecine feud?

This dilemma actually forms the core of the crisis that Vajpayee is seen to have precipitated. By singling him out thus, Modi’s status on the symbol of hardline Hindutva has been underlined-which is why even the RSS, which otherwise wants to get rid of him, has had to object. What has shocked the BJP leaders most is the public laundering by Vajpayee especially since he knew fully well that the party had already decided to quietly ease Modi out.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 28, 2004.

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