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Top Gun to dhoti swag, Rajnath Singh’s biggest strength is also his weakness

While Rajnath Singh draws his strength from his support base in Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah’s strength lies in his proximity to Modi.

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Rajnath Singh, 68, has been many things in a political career that has spanned over four decades. With a speech modelled on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Uttar Pradesh as his karmabhoomi (he was the chief minister for two years), the former physics teacher from Mirzapur’s K.B. Postgraduate College is the BJP’s consensus prime minister whose time has never quite arrived.

He was the president of the BJP at a critical juncture (his second term, 2013-2014) when the old had to be abandoned for the new, most publicly at the Panaji national executive meeting that ended L.K. Advani’s career and launched Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial bid.

Yet in 2014 and in 2019, when he contested from Lucknow, he was compared to Vajpayee and hence was politically acceptable to Muslims; influential Shia clerics like Maulana Kalbe Jawad supported him.

Now as India’s defence minister, Rajnath Singh flaunts his Top Gun avatar, following it up with a dhoti swag in France. He defends his belief in faith with equal gusto as evidenced in his puja on the first Rafale delivered to the country. He may not have been able to weaponise the home ministry the way his successor Amit Shah has done, but with his Thakur antecedents and his background of imprisonment during the Emergency, he remains one of the few leaders in the Modified BJP who cannot be put out to pasture.

This is no small feat given the challenges he has been up against. Allegations of corruption against his son Pankaj Singh, now an MLA in UP. A disastrous performance in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2002 that saw the BJP reduced to third place.

It is said that Singh hardly takes a decision without consulting aide-astrologer Sudhanshu Trivedi, whom he had appointed party spokesperson while he was the party president. Trivedi is now a member of Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: With Rafale puja, Rajnath Singh was just Hindu Everyman. Criticising him is political suicide

Biggest strength, biggest weakness

Rajnath Singh may be a survivor in the duopoly that controls the BJP, but there was a time when he and Prime Minister Modi were almost equals. As India Today described them in 2008, during Rajnath Singh’s first term as president of the BJP (2005-2009), “Both Rajnath and Modi have emerged as key players in Advani’s BJP. One as his chief organisational strategist, while the other as the star campaigner. This is the troika that will be the face of BJP in the run-up to the next general elections. Interestingly, all three come from a strong RSS background and have worked their way up from the grassroots.”

What a difference a few years can make.

In many ways, Rajnath Singh’s biggest strength is also his biggest weakness. A consensus politician, he has always looked for balance in his decisions. An India Today report from 2007 puts it up front: “Caution has become the byword for the Age of Rajnath in BJP. No desperate measures; no disrespect to the still looming elders. Being a fine artist of please-all, BJP president Rajnath Singh strives to achieve harmony out of organisational disorder. That is what he has done with the latest changes in the party.”

The report says, “He has struck a perfect balance between the old and the new, with no clear winners or losers. The ideological arbiters in the Parivar can’t complain and the leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani can’t say he has been treated less venerably. Team Rajnath may be a triumph of balancing act. It doesn’t have the presidential seal — or zeal.”

Emergency to education minister 

Longtime political observer and Lucknow-based journalist Sharat Pradhan says Rajnath Singh believes in carrying everyone along. While he draws his strength from his support base in Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah’s strength lies in his proximity to Modi. “Perhaps Modi remains wary of him precisely on this account – his support base in Uttar Pradesh,” Pradhan tells ThePrint.

Ironically, Rajnath Singh carved out a place for himself as the education minister in Uttar Pradesh by bringing in a “harsh” law, the Anti-Copying Act 1992, that made use of unfair means in the examination a cognisable offence. When Mulayam Singh Yadav returned to power, he repealed the law. Rajnath Singh was told in no uncertain terms that the youth would graduate in time for the next elections to vote him out but he did not back down, says Gautam Chintamani, who recently wrote Rajneeti: A Biography of Rajnath Singh.

This belief comes from Rajnath Singh’s upbringing – his parents inculcated in him a commitment to try doing the right thing no matter the cost. As a student leader, Chintamani tells ThePrint, Rajnath Singh fought with the authorities on the quality of food served in the hostel on the eve of an exam and even though the university’s dean felt that students might push their luck and ask for an extra day to prepare, Singh ensured the test took place as scheduled.

During the Emergency, a 24-year-old Rajnath Singh was being transported in a train from Mirzapur to Naini Jail and a hundred policemen who had surrounded him ensured he couldn’t meet his mother and wife at the railway platform. Even in the midst of uncertainty, Singh’s mother told him to never bow down to anyone even if that meant spending his entire life in prison. This was the last time, says Chintamani, he ever saw his mother as she passed away while he was incarcerated during the 21-month long Emergency.

Also read: After UN speech, Rajnath Singh says Imran Khan inspiring cartoonists by going door to door

The troubleshooter 

Politics in India is also about combination, compulsions and calculations, which, more often than not, force leaders to make decisions that are acceptable to everyone. Chintamani tells ThePrint that Rajnath Singh has tried and been quite successful in taking decisions that resonate with the larger stakeholders. “Be it his party cadre or the electorate in general, Rajnath Singh has had his ear to the ground and, therefore, continues to remain pragmatic. He is aware of the role he plays in the grand scheme of things and still approaches every responsibility, irrespective of how big or small, with the same gusto,” he says.

According to Sharat Pradhan, Rajnath Singh’s ability to handle tricky situations with ease first came to the fore when he managed to save the Kalyan Singh government way back in 1998 after the Loktantrik Congress withdrew support and the government was dismissed.

“He used his personal equations with a private airline to cart all MLAs in support of Kalyan Singh all the way to Delhi for a parade before the President the very next morning. The airline cancelled its scheduled commercial flight to provide the place to Rajnath Singh,” says Pradhan.

“Yet shortly thereafter, when Kalyan Singh ran into trouble with Vajpayee, Rajnath Singh stood by Vajpayee, without uttering a word against Kalyan Singh, who was eventually eased out of the party. Even on being confronted with embarrassing queries by the media, he never put his foot in the mouth and chose to skirt any controversy with a smile on his face,” adds Pradhan.

Staying on top

Rajnath Singh has mastered the art of staying at the top. As India Today reported in June this year: “Just hours after he was informed of his appointment as defence minister on May 31, Rajnath Singh dialled Army chief General Bipin Rawat. He wanted to spend his first working day, June 3, in Siachen. The army chief readily agreed. A little over 48 hours later, the defence minister was helicoptered into Siachen base camp, where he spent a day with troops at the world’s highest military deployment – 12,000 feet above sea level.”

“I started at the top,” Singh told his close aides after the visit, “and I will stay there”.

Also read: Rajnath Singh becomes first defence minister to fly in indigenous Tejas fighter jet

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. The writer, a seasoned journalist, has vented her spleen against Rajnath Singh. If a leader is decisive and pushy, you brand him as an autocrat. On the other hand, if he is good in balancing opposing demands, if label him as lackluster. This is writing and damning someone for the heck of it.

  2. True to his image, Shiv has come out with an article which left me completely numb, thoughtless and speechless ! Only Shiv can think of such topics. Why should Modi aspire to get Nobel peace prize, when 1.30 billion Indians repose faith in him every 5 years! This is far greater achievement for him than some Noble peace prize! And that too for making peace with Pakistan!! We want him to finish off Pakistan (not by nuclear war of course but in gentle ways- by vivisecting it, developing India economically and isolating it from its friends etc. You do not get Noble Prize for doing this Shiv! Dont waste your time on advising Modi ( and in effect somehow finding one more opportunity to viscerally criticize him!).

    • Rajnath Singh issues a warning to Pakistan every other day! Today he told Pakistan, ““I would like to give a suggestion to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. If you are serious enough to fight against terror, we are ready to assist you. If you want out Army, then we will send them there for your help”. Is he joking? Does he really think Pakistan is seriously listening to him? Is he a prime ministerial timber? And you want more of his kind as ministers in the cabinet!

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