The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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BJP B-team in Himachal test of strength

New Delhi, Jan. 15: After the Gujarat polls, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu and his most high profile general-secretary Arun Jaitley are out to prove a few points: They can wrest Himachal Pradesh on their own steam, re-establish the party’s and their own supremacy, and check the growing perception that the BJP cannot win a poll without Narendra Modi.

With the Gujarat chief minister’s emergence as the virtual no. 3 in the BJP, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the power dynamics in the party’s second rung leadership have begun to change palpably. Naidu and Jaitley have closed ranks now and are working on the Himachal polls in tandem.

Jaitley, also the party spokesman, is shuttling between Delhi and Shimla and involving himself in every stage of election management — from shortlisting candidates and identifying their constituencies to zeroing in on issues and planning the smallest details of the campaign.

Unlike Gujarat’s Modi, whose persona overshadowed the Assembly polls from the word go, Himachal chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has kept a relatively low profile. This is despite the unanimity in the BJP that if it won the polls, Dhumal would again be its candidate for the top job.

The Naidu-Jaitley equation had suffered some uncomfortable moments after both returned to the party. BJP sources said in the “battle among equals” — which the second-ranking leaders thought they were — Jaitley “found it hard to reconcile to Naidu as his boss”.

Although Jaitley played a key role in the Gujarat victory, Modi’s persona overshadowed every other contribution, sources said. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that from Naidu downwards, everybody got the feeling they would have to bask in Modi’s shadow,” the sources said.

A Cabinet minister from Bihar noted: “The maximum demand from our young cadre is for Modi. Even the northern states want him as the star campaigner in future elections.”

The Himachal poll, sources said, is the chance Naidu and Jaitley have been waiting for to show that the party matters above all, irrespective of individual leaders. “Although Modi is expected to campaign, he will not be the central focus but will be one of the several inputs that go into the election,” sources said.

According to the sources, in the attempt to put the party on top, deputy Prime Minister Advani and the RSS are backing Naidu and Jaitley.

“The RSS’s belief has always been that no individual should be bigger than the organisation. So the leaders will not allow the Modi cult to grow unchecked,” the sources added.

“If the BJP wins Himachal, Naidu’s and Jaitley’s positions would be consolidated. The cadre would get the message that under their leadership, the party has truly turned the corner and its chances of winning the other four states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh) are bright,” sources said.

Another prominent second-rung leader, parliamentary affairs and infotech minister Pramod Mahajan, has reportedly looked at the Modi phenomenon in a different way.

Although Mahajan was believed to be wary of Modi’s unbridled rise in the BJP, after the polls he was quick to see the Gujarat chief minister as an asset to playing politics in his home turf of Maharashtra.

So when Mumbai’s Gujaratis wanted to felicitate Modi, BJP sources said, Mahajan asked the state unit and his brother-in-law Gopinath Munde to make it a party function.

“It served two purposes: co-opt Modi as a prospective ally in future power games because, after all, Mahajan is a long-time player, and send a message to the Shiv Sena that the BJP is as good at playing the Hindutva card as Bal Thackeray, if not better,” sources said.

The Sena, however, has not reacted negatively to Modi’s presence in Thackeray’s political turf of Shivaji Park, and this, the BJP believes, is “good news”.

“In a future seat-sharing arrangement, they (the Sena) could accept us an equal partner, instead of calling the shots as they did in the past,” BJP sources said.

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