The inevitable has come to be. Outside the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party on Ashoka Road in Delhi is a huge hoarding. For many years now the marquee has triggered an unstated question among the cadre who toil below: how many of those from that pantheon can elect themselves? Narendra Modi has brought the question out in the open by challenging the writ of the party hierarchy and staked his claim to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate—in 2014 or whenever.
Cult has naturally wooed cadre and the momentum of mass popularity has overtaken the muddled mantra of collective leadership. The Sangh promotes the motto of the Parivar as “worship the nation, worship the ideal” and has held that “there is no place for hero worship”. Modi has shown the RSS that electoral politics functions around a different set of rules. Leadership cannot be separated from personality. Modi has enforced yet again that unwritten rule of Indian politics, leaders cannot be selected. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and the BJP have often maintained there are many candidates for prime minister. Modi has virtually made it a contest of one! The ouster of Sanjay Joshi signals both a tactical triumph for Modi and a tectonic shift within the BJP and the Parivar.
Modi is not the first politician to have deployed personal popularity against party hierarchy. In 1966, Indira Gandhi was faced with a similar syndicate of leaders who believed they could direct the destiny of the party. When asked about the war between her and the Syndicate led by Kamaraj, she said, “The question is of whom the party wants and whom the people want. My position with the people is uncontested.” Her mass appeal was her strongest weapon and the lack of charisma of her opponents her strength. By 1969, she had used the matrix effectively to wrest power from the party. There is no doubt that Modi has a similar quest.
Modi started his Ashwamedh Yagna earlier this year with the Sadhbhavana series. La affaire Joshi is in itself merely a milestone in Modi’s march. It was both personal and political. The personal is deeply personal. In 2001, I was in Gujarat to report on the Bhuj earthquake. The Keshubhai Patel regime was in a mess and Modi had been brought in to help with rescue and rehab. I asked him about the state of the administration and Modi said, “I have been kept out of my janmabhoomi and my karmabhoomi by vested interests.” One didn’t have to ask who. It was well known that the regime in Gandhinagar was being run by Joshi from the small office of the RSS in Ahmedabad’s Khanpur Chowk. When he came to power, Modi retaliated and kept Joshi out of Gujarat. Many believe that given his stature, Modi should have ignored the irritant that he saw Joshi to be. Modi obviously doesn’t believe so.
The demand for Joshi’s ouster was political too. It was his instrument to expand his writ, a test of his own strength and the weakness in the status quo within the party. His wrangle with the party bigwigs is about his arrogance, ambition and his turf. Many in the party want a share of the spoils of power in Gujarat but unlike other BJP chief ministers, Modi is unwilling. He has consolidated power under brand Modi and has told the Delhi Darbar off.
In his 10-plus years of reign, Modi has not yielded room to anyone. Competitors who dared to compete for popular attention were despatched into political oblivion. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad—remember Pravin Togadia—which pretty much called the shots in the administration during and after the riots was neutered. By 2007, Modi had effectively made the party his choir group and politics in Gujarat presidential. It is only natural, given his track record, that he would make the onward march to Delhi presidential in the American sense.
Modi may have has won his battles but he still has to win the war. Victory is another country, Dilli dur ast! The Ashwamedh Yagna though is far from complete. Modi has to first win Gujarat again. The Sangh is not without masters of intrigue. An anti-incumbency of 10 years, the battle for his successor and the caste calculus will be deployed as instruments. The articles in Sangh publications, the posters of Joshi, the Patel Sammelan in Mehsana are all pointers of the disruption ahead.
And winning Gujarat is not enough. India is not Gujarat. The arithmetic of politics is ranged against single-party rule. The party’s vote share hovers around 20 per cent, it continues to be irrelevant in 14 states and its best score is 181/542. The circumstance demands that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is acceptable to the allies. Nobody knows the pain of being the popular and unacceptable better than L K Advani. It took him 17 years and a trip to Pakistan. Yet he wasn’t acceptable to India. Already Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) have made their voice heard. And Jaswant Singh has thrown the fat in the fire, suggesting the NDA must choose a prime ministerial candidate. Can Modi reinvent himself enough to be acceptable within and outside his party? It is a question that Modi must answer in the next few months.
India badly needs a functioning opposition to challenge the corroded status quo. India needs to find the next Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in a hurry.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own
Shankkar Aiyar is a senior journalist who specialises in the politics