When Narendra Modi rose to be prime minister and the unprecedentedly preeminent leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the summer of 2014, it is unlikely anyone would have anticipated dissidence and bickering making headlines within 18 months.
The BJP, by and large, is a disciplined party with more internal democracy than most of its rivals, and definitely enormously more than its permanent allies. There is a history of healthy difference of opinion: Between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, for example, most famously on what to do with Mr Modi in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots. But these were resolved through internal debate, usually with one deferring to the other, sometimes with a sulk. If anything still festered, there was always the Supreme Third Umpire, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur or closer home in Jhandewalan. What is happening right now is not BJP-like.
Kirti Azad, a three-term Lok Sabha member, has openly challenged the image and power of Arun Jaitley, a member of Mr Modi’s essential troika — which controls this government. A chronic dissident and former party minister, Ram Jethmalani, is appearing in court for Arvind Kejriwal, whom Mr Jaitley has sued for libel. If you watch the actions and social media timelines of some of the other key supporters, functionaries, ideologues of the party, a pattern is evident.
Mr Jaitley is seen as the most vulnerable of the troika and a tempting proxy for attacks targeted ultimately at Mr Modi. Nobody would dare directly target Mr Modi, and while there are murmurs about Amit Shah after Bihar, nobody is willing to come out and say this openly. Jaitley is seen as extroverted, exposed and, in some calculations, most expendable for Mr Modi. The pattern, therefore, is that from Azad to Kejriwal, and from some free radical sorts close to the RSS and the coven of furious old veterans, he is the man to target.
The metaphor may vary depending on who you talk to. One may say, see, strategy always has to be to bowl at the weaker batsman as far as possible. Another may say, it’s a bit like grandmother’s stories: If you want to hurt the king, kill his favourite parrot. But it means the same thing. If you can dislodge him, Mr Modi will be either forced to alter his balance of power, or concede some of it to others. Mr Kejriwal has simply sensed an opportunity and joined the wolfpack of Messrs Azad, Jethmalani and some others.
We have seen something comparable in the past. Just as Mr Jaitley is the proxy for sniping at the Modi-Shah duo, Brajesh Mishra was targeted in the Vajpayee arrangement. He was painted as an outsider, overly powerful (holding the dual charge of principal secretary and NSA), too pro-American and personally aligned to one man. Collaterally, there were whispers also about Mr Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. But very little was said in the open, and definitely not by anybody in a formal position. The viciousness and depth of this campaign was revealed later by the then RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, in a Walk the Talk interview with me. It is remarkable, therefore, that Mr Vajpayee fought back for his own in spite of such pressures from the RSS. Dissidents are putting Mr Modi to a similar examination now.
Three things determine their timing. First, whatever the growth figures, there is no real turnaround in economic indicators, barring the fiscal deficit which is a function of oil prices. Second, the Bihar setback has weakened the ruling combine and no important state (Assam is small) will give it an opportunity soon enough to redeem itself. And third, elections for the party president are held later in January. Surely, Shah will be looking for a second three-year term — and, since it would then conclude just months before the 2019 general elections, the presumption is it would be extended to keep continuity. For all dissidents and aspirants, vocal or silent, this is like a last opportunity.
That is why politics has reached such a pitch. Whispers range from arrogance putting off party-men and voters to excessive “Gujaratisation” of the party. And while there is sympathy for this in the RSS, there is no evidence yet that it is willing to rock the boat, even to the extent it did in Mr Vajpayee’s last years.
More even than Gujaratisation, the complaints are over the “Congressification” of the party. Institutions of internal democracy usually functioned well in the BJP. But not so now. Cabinet ministers, barring some, are resentful of lack of authority and, you would presume, of the fact that the Modi-Shah system of surveillance and monitoring is robust enough to ensure there is no money-making.
Mr Modi’s place as prime minister and supreme leader is unassailable. Therefore, no questions about his future, but only on whether he will change the course or persist with the one he has set. This means deepening and institutionalising the high command culture that the BJP never had, and the Congress built 1969 onwards. The discordance we see and hear now is also in the nature of an immune response to this. The dissidents hope this argument, of over-centralisation, will impress the RSS as well.
The shadow of the RSS always looms over the BJP but equations have changed greatly from the past. The last time it intervened openly, and decisively, in BJP matters was after its rout in 2009 and in the wake of Mr Advani’s decline. Four senior BJP leaders then — Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar — called on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to help rebuild the party by helping choose the president first. The RSS wanted a young chief; and, while it preferred Manohar Parrikar, his case was fouled up with his statement comparing Mr Advani with a stale pickle. That is how Nitin Gadkari came into the picture.
Such an intervention is most unlikely now. Mr Modi is too powerful and popular for even the Nagpur clergy to mess with. He has also given them more space in his distribution of power than Mr Vajpayee ever did, handing over key ministries and governorships, particularly in northeastern states, to its preferred choices. The RSS also knows that Mr Modi can fight back when pushed, as he did in Gujarat. Watch the next four weeks for which side of Mr Modi he reveals on the Jaitely-Shah issue: The “accommodative” one, or the defiant one.
This article was originally published on 26 December 2015.