One of Indira Gandhi’s most enduring but disagreeable contributions to public life lay in obliterating the distinction between politics and politicking. In 1969, she sacked Morarji Desai, her main rival in the Congress, and then proceeded to nationalize the banks and abolish privy purses. Putting an ideological gloss to what was essentially a factional struggle, she projected herself as a decisive leader, split the Congress and won a resounding mandate in the 1971 general election.
In steamrolling her way to absolute power, Mrs Gandhi also set the parameters of what has come to be regarded as decisive leadership by the political class: the ability to bludgeon all potential challengers. In 1990,Vishwanath Pratap Singh emulated this model by implementing the Mandal Commission report on reservations so as to steal the thunder from Devi Lal, his foremost challenger in the Janata Party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has maintained that it does not seek to emulate the culture of the Congress and its various offshoots. Its self-perception is not so much that of a voluntary association as an extended parivar (family). A parivar may well have internal strains and rivalries; there may even be serious disagreements on key issues. However, the unwritten convention is that the integrity of the parivar has to be maintained at all costs. It is obligatory for the nominal karta (head of the family) to take everyone along. This includes those who have lost their immediate utility, are in disagreement with prevailing policies and even those who are a complete nuisance. The parivar approach implies that the personal stamp of an individual leader cannot become the hallmark of the party. Somewhere along the line, aggregation has to prevail.
The late Kushabhau Thakre, a full-time pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who was assigned political responsibilities as early as 1951, epitomized this consensual approach. When confronted with contentious choices, his invariable advice was: “Please discuss it among yourselves, come to a decision and that will be my verdict.” It was neither a particularly political approach nor did it correspond to the lessons in leadership proffered by modern management colleges. Yet, Thakre was widely respected in the BJP and wielded awesome moral authority.
By convention, the BJP, in line with the RSS, has attached more importance to the process of decision-making rather than the decision itself. In theory, the party president is vested with extraordinary powers. What is unstated, however, is that the exercise of powers is coupled with wide-ranging consultations. An individual may get his way despite objections from colleagues, but not before it goes through a filter. Even flights of whimsy have to be approved in committee — Atal Bihari Vajpayee was adept at playing this game. One of the serious allegations against L.K. Advani was that he didn’t bounce his controversial views of Mohammed Ali Jinnah with colleagues before making them public in Pakistan.
The corollary of this fanatical devotion to consultations is the insistence on total discipline. Since it is understood that all decisions are considered, it follows that no one has the right to question them in public.
This may explain why the controversial appointment of party office-bearers by the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, has elicited no public statements by those who are apparently dissatisfied. The exclusion of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, from the Parliamentary Board and the Central Election Committee was an audacious step. At the 2002 National Executive in Goa and immediately after the 2004 general election, Vajpayee had tried to force Modi’s resignation. On both occasions, there was an outcry in the party and the moves came to nought.
The question is: how was Rajnath allowed to do what he did earlier this month, and that too when Assembly elections in Gujarat are just some 10 months away' What is also significant is that the move came at a time when Modi has successfully reinvented himself as the high priest of development and administrative efficiency.
Since Rajnath has a track record of both second-guessing the RSS and acquiescing in all their suggestions, many analysts are justified in deducing that the snub delivered to Modi must have had the backing of Nagpur. Modi’s strained relationship with a section of the RSS in Gujarat and his feud with the local wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are, after all, not state secrets.
Information from within the party suggests that something strange happened. Rajnath did indeed inform Vajpayee and Advani of his plan — the latter apparently hinted that it would be injudicious. Yet, there was absolutely no basis for his claim that the move was inspired by the RSS. Someone somewhere may have been consulted, but did those individuals pass their personal preferences as the collective view of the RSS' The full story may never be known, but the upshot is that the RSS, which claims to be a cultural organization, has taken a dim view of the BJP president trying to use it as a cover for a decision whose logic is to be found in Indira Gandhi’s legacy of politicking.
Yet, even by the exalted standards of political guile, Rajnath was found wanting. If the motive behind bringing Modi down a notch or two was to establish his machismo, the party president need not have taken refuge behind the RSS. More than anything else, it made him appear the unthinking messenger. And if the RSS distances itself from the organizational rejig, where will it leave Rajnath' Will he not then be accused of lowering the presidency to the level of a faction' For Rajnath, the portents are not encouraging.
However, regardless of whether Rajnath is rapped on the knuckles or discreetly admonished, the appointment of office-bearers has cleared the air on a crucial issue. For the past two years, the BJP and BJP voters have been agonizing over the choice of a successor to Vajpayee. Various names have done the rounds and there have even been suggestions that after Vajpayee it will be downhill all the way. In targeting Modi, Rajnath has clearly identified the man he considers his foremost challenger.
Actually, the emergence of Modi as the BJP leader-in-waiting was becoming increasingly apparent. For the past four years, the Gujarat chief minister has been working assiduously to transcend the image of a sectarian leader. He has focussed on firm leadership, efficient administration and a no-nonsense economic policy. Helped in no small measure by the entrepreneurial culture of the state, he has built Gujarat as a showcase for high-voltage development. Apart from those who regard him as a Hindu icon, he has steadily won the admiration of Indian business — as was evident from the resounding success of the Vibrant Gujarat summit last month. Politically, too, he has emerged as the BJP’s main poster boy, even outside Gujarat. His rallies, whether in Maharashtra or Kerala, have elicited huge responses.
The BJP, like most political parties in India, does not have an institutionalized approach to succession. A leader is appointed either by a cabal and then thrown into the deep end or, as in Vajpayee’s case, yearning from the grassroots settle the issue. For the moment, Modi has to focus on winning the Gujarat Assembly election for the BJP. If he succeeds, the pressure by BJP supporters to bring him to national politics and project him as the prime ministerial candidate will become very hard to resist. As things appear at present, only a self-goal can prevent Modi from assuming Vajpayee’s mantle. In retrospect, the BJP may well thank Rajnath for bringing subterranean currents to the surface.