BJP has to grapple with old friends, sulking allies (Comment)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in the throes of change. While several former members like Jaswant Singh and Ram Jethmalani are returning to the party, some of its allies are showing signs of restiveness.

The latest person who seems to have become somewhat edgy in the BJP’s company is one of the major figures of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He was so upset with some of the advertisements sponsored by the BJP featuring him and his Gujarat counterpart, Narendra Modi, that he cancelled a dinner for the party’s delegates who were in Patna for their national executive meeting.

Subsequently, the rift between Nitish Kumar and the BJP deepened when no one except L.K. Advani mentioned his name during a rally in the town.

If Nitish Kumar was angry over the possibility of losing the Muslim vote for being shown clasping hands with Modi, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has lately displayed signs of disquiet over the clandestine links between the BJP and the Congress, and between the Congress and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), during local elections.

The Shiv Sena evidently fears such deals will undermine its position vis-a-vis both the BJP and the MNS, the breakaway group which has cut into the Shiv Sena’s Marathi vote bank.

It is worth recalling in this context that the Shiv Sena had supported the Congress’ Pratibha Patil, a Maharashtrian, for the president’s post instead of the NDA’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a veteran BJP leader from Rajasthan. What is more, Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had expressed his preference for Sharad Pawar, another Maharashtrian, as a possible prime minister in the place of Advani, the NDA’s nominee.

Given these widening gulfs between the BJP and two of its allies, the party will be pleased that Jaswant Singh and Ram Jethmalani are returning to the organisation. There is also talk about another estranged member, the fiery Uma Bharati, being accommodated by the party.

However, despite the boost which the BJP is bound to get from the presence of these energetic individuals, there may be problems as well. The case of Jaswant Singh is particularly complicated because among those who had campaigned for his ouster last year was Modi, who remains a larger-than-life figure in the party because of his electoral successes in Gujarat.

The reason for Modi’s ire was the criticism of Vallabhbhai Patel in Jaswant Singh’s controversial biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Since Patel is an icon in Gujarat and the proverbial ‘iron man’ on whom Modi models himself, any hint that Jaswant Singh’s induction means winking at his comments on Patel will not be acceptable to the Gujarat chief minister.

But it wasn’t so much the criticism of Patel (and Jawaharlal Nehru) which led to Jaswant Singh’s expulsion. It was for writing a book on the man whom the BJP and the Sangh Parivar hold primarily responsible for partitioning India, as indeed do an overwhelming majority of Indians. While Patel and Nehru were blamed for failing to prevent the country’s vivisection, Jinnah could not but get a measure of acclaim, as in any decent biography.

Four years before Jaswant Singh’s book was published, Advani had lost his position as party president for the same offence. His cardinal mistake was that during a visit to Pakistan in 2005, he had approvingly quoted Jinnah’s celebrated ‘secular’ speech Aug 11, 1947.

Jaswant Singh’s return, therefore, will be a belated acknowledgement by the party that it made a mistake in forcing Advani to step down. Besides, the saffron camp will no longer be able to project Jinnah as a villain as vigorously as before.

Those who are returning to the party can pose other problems as well. Before his expulsion, Jaswant Singh had called upon the BJP to clarify the meaning of Hindutva and not be seen as a party of yesterday. Now, he may have to clarify what he had meant.

Such somersaults are perhaps unavoidable in these situations. Ram Jethmalani, for instance, who has returned to the BJP after a decade, has had to explain his earlier show of clemency for Afzal Guru, the terrorist who is on death row, by saying that he did not want him to die easily but ‘rot in jail’ instead.

It isn’t only the individuals who may have to offer explanations for views which differ from the party’s. The party too will have to answer the charge whether its expulsions were rather too hasty.

The BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, will be relieved, however, that he will not have to explain the ousters, especially Jaswant Singh’s, since the latter’s eviction was the handiwork of the previous party chief, Rajnath Singh, who was described by an angry Jaswant Singh as a ‘provincial’.

For Gadkari, the spate of homecomings will be something of an achievement since it will camouflage his failure to make his presence felt as the new chief. Instead, the fiasco in Jharkhand, where the BJP ditched Shibu Soren after he voted for the Congress in parliament, and then tried unsuccessfully to strike a deal with him, hasn’t shown Gadkari in a favourable light. The Nitish Kumar episode is another black mark for him.

When senior leaders make a lateral entry into a party, even if they are former members, there is always a problem of placement. Besides, the BJP will be wary of the reactions of the head of the Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Jaswant Singh, for instance, is not one of its favourites. It had shot down Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s move to make him finance minister in 1998.

Uma Bharati too is not liked by the RSS and sections of the BJP in her home state of Madhya Pradesh apparently because of her individualistic ways. Clearly, the BJP will have a lot on its hands in the coming days.

(19.06.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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