New Delhi, Aug. 27: Still short of a hundred days in office, the Narendra Modi government was pushed into putting panicked sutures on fissures at the very top today.
Home minister Rajnath Singh issued an open dare he would quit over internally inspired “rumours” that his politico son, Pankaj Singh, was involved in financial misconduct and had been reproved by the leadership.
Alarm bells rang right down the Raisina Hill seat of the government to the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road 2km away.
Desperate remedies were effected and fires doused, but nobody was sure the last had been heard of the first public washing of dirty linen in the Modi government.
Convinced that a cabinet colleague was behind the campaign against his son, and irate that it had gone unchallenged, Rajnath forced the leadership’s hand by going public.
“In the last 15-20 days, there have been rumours about me and my family…. If someone raises questions about me and my family’s integrity, I will not take it lying down. If any charges against any family member are prima facie found to be true, I will quit politics and sit at home,” a grim home minister announced suo motu.
Rajnath pointedly added that he had raised the matter with the Prime Minister and the BJP president, Amit Shah, and both expressed surprise.
That hadn’t put an end to the speculation over Pankaj, though, and, therefore, here was his father playing truth or dare.
The home minister’s throw of dice struck just the notes he wanted. Within minutes, he drew an elaborate clarification from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), describing reports about Pankaj’s alleged misdemeanour as “plain lies” aimed at tarnishing the image of the government.
“This has reference to reports appearing in a section of the media over the past several weeks, mentioning the Prime Minister, and referring to the conduct of some Union ministers, and alleged misconduct of the home minister’s son,” the PMO statement said. “These reports are plain lies, motivated and constitute a malicious attempt at character assassination and tarnishing the image of the government.”
But clearly, the internal crisis assessment of the Modi dispensation was that the PMO statement wasn’t enough to assuage Rajnath’s hurt.
So within hours, party boss Shah furnished a character certificate to the home minister and his son. “Rajnath Singh is one of the senior-most leaders of the party. In his political career, he has been a symbol of decency, soberness and graciousness,” Shah said.
He described Pankaj, a general secretary of the Uttar Pradesh BJP, as a “dedicated party worker”.
Pertinently, neither the PMO statement nor Shah’s enlightened anyone on what exactly the nature of the allegations against Pankaj were, and who had made them.
So, here’s what has been swirling around the power corridors for quite a while now: it has been alleged that he had accepted money from a corporate house. It has also been alleged that the matter came to the notice of Modi who summoned Rajnath and his son and asked the latter to return the money.
Speculation that this indeed may have been the case gained momentum yesterday when Pankaj did not figure in the BJP list of candidates for the ensuing by-elections. It was said that Rajnath’s son was denied a ticket because of his alleged financial dealings.
Rajnath is learnt to have taken his complaint to RSS leaders and to the Prime Minister. He counter-alleged that a senior cabinet colleague had been planting reports against Pankaj in the media to tarnish his image.
BJP sources said Rajnath was angry enough to tell the leadership that he would bring matters to a head by quitting his post — a prospect that would not only have undermined Prime Minister Modi’s public image, but also soured the 100-day mood.
But the urgency with which the PMO and the BJP moved to rubbish the charges may already have sent out the message that there is trouble at the very top in the government. “The official clarification has turned a political rumour into an official fact. This is a tactical self-goal by the Modi dispensation,” a source said.
Divining the first overt symptoms of a schism in the new Modi-Shah establishment, the Congress gleefully jumped into the fault lines. “We as the main Opposition party have not made any charges,” Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken said, tongue in cheek. “Who are the people in the government who have made these charges that saddened the home minister so much that he wants to quit politics?”
There may exist a larger, yet subterranean, narrative. There have been suggestions that senior party and government leaders are “uncomfortable” with the “tight ship” the Modi-Shah duo want to make of the government and the party.
Rajnath has been at the receiving end of such tightening of grip earlier. Barely a few days into taking oath as home minister, he was disallowed the bureaucrat he had picked to be his private secretary.
Transport minister Nitin Gadkari, too, is learnt to have taken a complaint about his house being bugged by the RSS. He, of course, denied he had done any such thing after reports appeared in newspapers.
Some felt that the rumours swirling in the power corridors were meant to send out a tough-administrator image of Modi and aimed at warning his ministers against any wrongdoing.
Some in the party also speak of “unease” over the speed with which the Modi-Shah team is closing its grip over the party. Only yesterday, three party veterans — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi — had been cast out of top decision-making bodies.
Party insiders said the marginalisation of the two senior leaders combined with the “high-handed” manner of Modi and Shah was slowly generating misgivings in the party and could explode in the days to come.