Debating India

Can BJP handle individualistic leaders?

Friday 12 November 2004

NEW DELHI: Their politics and style are somewhat dissimilar, but in their dramatic exits from the BJP, both Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti have put the spotlight on the party’s inability to accommodate charismatic and individualistic leaders within its flock.

BJP leaders, who had a ringside view of Kalyan Singh’s expulsion soon after the 1999 general elections, experienced a sense of deja vu. Singh, then UP CM, was accused of sabotaging the party’s prospects in the state and his departure from BJP ranks was a long-drawn, very public affair even though TV cameras did not have a role to play.

In Kalyan Singh’s case, the Lodh leader had faced a direct attack at a meeting of the party national executive held in Delhi. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had wondered how the party could accept a situation where ex-PM A B Vajpayee’s electoral margin in Lucknow was reduced to a dangerously slim lead. She was echoing the conviction in certain quarters that Kalyan Singh had tried to sabotage Vajpayee’s prospects.

While Singh’s well-wishers urged him not to precipitate a confrontation, he continued to needle Vajpayee and was soon shown the door. The parting was very acrimonious and Singh treated BJP brass with epithets not very different from those used by Bharti. He formed the Rashtriya Kranti Dal and it was four years before he returned to the BJP.

Just as the BJP had once propped Singh as its Hindutva-OBC face in UP — the leader used to tell audiences of having spoken with Lord Ram over telephone — Bharti was also a temple trooper with the right caste label. And, just as Singh came to regard himself as the sole arbiter of BJP matters in UP, Bharti also sees herself as the queen of the ring in MP.

In a party where individualism is seen as a besetting sin and grey conformity gets a high score on organisational assessment sheets, ambition needs to be cloaked in rituals of deference. The very individualism that drives mass leaders becomes a weak spot exploited by less talented and envious rivals. Both Singh and Bharti faced the ire of state leaders of limited standing.

If their rivals have built up cases of indiscipline, the two leaders have not handled their stardom with aplomb. They have tended to be highly autocratic and nepotism has been rampant on their charge. In his first stint as UP CM in 1991, Singh was seen to be a hardworking administrator. But this changed.

In Bharti’s case, loyalty was the card that counted the most. She spared no efforts in rubbing people the wrong way, but without her energetic campaign, the tired and unimaginative BJP old guard would not have unseated Digvijay Singh.

BJP, though clearly a conservative, upper caste-dominated party, has realised the value of co-opting OBC politics. But as it is discovering, the process has its hazards.

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