Who is No. 3 in the Bharatiya Janata Party after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah? Dumb question, isn’t it? It has to be BJP president JP Nadda. Look at the pictures when they walk together at party events. It’s Prime Minister Modi in the lead, Home Minister Shah a few inches behind him and Nadda a few feet—almost in single file. There are photographs of Nadda presiding over party meetings, addressing rallies and meeting chief ministers and other bigwigs in the organisation and the government. All decisions in the party are taken in Nadda’s name, just as all executive action of the government of India is taken in the name of the President. So, on the face of it, the debate over No. 3 position may sound out of place.
Where it assumes relevance is when one looks at the emergence of a strong No. 4 in the party hierarchy, with the No. 3 question deemed to be settled. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee-Lal Krishna Advani years, No. 1 and No. 2 positions were cemented, while the rest of the pecking order virtually depended on public perception—no matter if a stalwart like Kushabhau Thakre was the party president or some political lightweights like Bangaru Laxman (remember the only Dalit BJP chief?), Jana Krishnamurthi or Venkaiah Naidu occupied that vaunted position. The same held true for Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari’s presidential tenures. There was always a Pramod Mahajan, an Arun Jaitley, a Sushma Swaraj or some chief ministers who would muddy the hierarchy after the top two.
A clear No. 4
Not much has changed in the Modi-Shah era. The party president is deemed to be No 3 as was the case in the Vajpayee-Advani era. Of course, the No. 3 spot becomes redundant if one of the top two holds the post of the party president. What has changed now is a clear emergence of No. 4 in the BJP hierarchy. It’s B.L. Santhosh who has emerged as a rock star general secretary (organisation) who flies from one state capital to another, with chief ministers, ministers, party leaders all in attendance. On Friday, when he visited Dehradun, a BJP MLA wanted to greet him with a bouquet but the man entrusted to bring it was taking time. “Aap susta hain, ki vyavastha hi susta hai (Are you lazy or is the entire system lazy)?” Those present there could only smile in embarrassment. Santhosh met ministers and party office-bearers a day after CM Pushkar Singh Dhami returned from Delhi to take their feedback about the functioning of the government and the party.
The next day, Santhosh was in Ratapani sanctuary in Bhopal presiding over a BJP meeting attended by CM Shivraj Chouhan, some of his ministers, Union ministers from the state and senior BJP leaders. They weren’t supposed to use any mobile or talk to the media—a practice Modi had started in Gujarat in the 1980s when he would send batches of BJP leaders to meet at far-flung places with no connectivity.
Last month, Santhosh was in Shimla holding one-on-one meetings with ministers to take their feedback about the functioning of the government.
One can only guess what message Santhosh gives the CMs, ministers and party leaders. He is a big fan of Shahrukh Khan-starrer Chak De! India. He is said to have watched the movie about a dozen times. One wonders Shahrukh Khan’s dialogue resonates in Santhosh’s meetings:
“Is team ko sirf woh players chahiye jo pehle India (read BJP) ke liye khel rahe hain…phir apni team mein apne saathiyon ke liye…aur uske baad bhi thodi bahut jaan bach Jaye, toh apne liye.”
Santhosh has also become Modi’s pointsman when it comes to conveying tough messages like asking then-Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani or then-Tripura CM Biplab Deb to resign. In the Union Cabinet revamp last year, Modi entrusted him with the task of calling up party MPs to tell them that they were to become ministers and so they should be in Delhi in the next 24 hours.
There have been many illustrious personalities who held the post of General Secretary (Organisation)—from Deendayal Upadhyay and Sunder Singh Bhandari in the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s precursor, to Narendra Modi, K.N. Govindacharya, Sanjay Joshi and Ram Lal in the BJP. All of them wielded great influence by virtue of the post they held. General Secretary (Organisation), at the national or state level, is a full-time pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who is ‘loaned’ to the BJP. He reports to the BJP president but only technically. For all practical purposes, his reporting manager is the RSS sarsanghchalak through a dotted line reporting to the Sampark Adhikari (joint general secretary Arun Kumar in this case) who acts as a coordinator between the Sangh and the BJP. Santhosh keeps a close watch on the happenings in the organisation and intervenes when and where he has to—from ensuring the BJP’s adherence to its larger ideological agenda and vision to ironing out wrinkles in its organisational machinery and effecting coordination between the Sangh and the BJP at all levels. As the RSS representative in the BJP, he has a say in installing the ‘right people in the right places’ within the organisation and the government as also in dropping them.
Source of Santhosh’s power
Obviously, the post B.L. Santhosh holds has enormous powers. But none of his predecessors were so high-profile when they held the post—not even Narendra Modi.
His predecessors were virtually invisible, backroom players. An RSS old-hand recalled this incident to me. In 2003, Sanjay Joshi was traveling in an AC 3-tier train from Delhi to Ranchi. His close aide kept bringing him the phone, “Sir, Adavniji ka phone hai…Sir, Pramodji (Mahajan) ka phone hai….” After a while, a co-passenger got upset: “Arre, aap sahi mein itne bade hain toh third class mein kyon chal rahe hain (if you are so big, why are you traveling in an AC 3-tier)?” Sanjay Joshi smiled it away.
In the past, Santhosh’s predecessors relied on General Secretaries (Organisation) in state BJP units. If they needed to intervene—say, in case of factionalism—they would call the concerned parties and do the needful discreetly, without making any public display of it. If they had to, they would meet ministers without many outside the party knowing about it. They wouldn’t make public comments. But Santhosh is different. He shares his views on anything and everything on Twitter, targeting his party’s critics and adversaries. He even threatened US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with intervention in the election, tweeting, “How much ever neutral we wish to be you compel us to play a role in Presidential elections.”
So, what’s behind the change in the role of the RSS pointsman in the BJP? First, it has to do with Santhosh’s individual personality. A chemical engineer, the 55-year-old is a social media-savvy RSS pracharak a la Modi. His detractors accuse him of harbouring political ambitions and this is attributed to his longstanding feud with B.S. Yediyurappa. Santhosh has, however, been grooming young leaders in the state, including Mysore MP Prathap Simha and Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya. If he has any political ambitions, he has been extremely discreet about it. Anyway, if one RSS pracharak can become the Prime Minister of India and another Haryana CM, why to blame Santhosh for nursing ambitions, if at all? Second, Santhosh is the RSS pointsman in the BJP at a time when the line between the ideological patron and political protégé is blurred. Prime Minister Modi is the RSS and vice versa today. Santhosh knows it well. And that’s why he seems to have changed his reporting manager—from the RSS sarsanghchalak to PM Modi. That’s the source of his power. And, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t mind flaunting it. If someone in the Sangh or the BJP is uneasy about it, so be it.
The author is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)