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Bhagwat-Soni turf war in RSS cost Gadkari his job

By Ajay Singh

If conspiracies, power games, corruption, crime and unexpected twists and turns characterise a racy thriller, the election of the new President of the BJP was a perfect political pot-boiler.

On the face of it, Nitin Gadkari’s nomination for a second term was a foregone conclusion backed as he was by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, the Godfather of the Sangh parivar. But behind the scenes it was a cloak-and-dagger game of revenge and retribution of the highest order in which a sideshow (Gadkari's continuance) hogged the headlines while the real slugfest, a severe turf war in the parent RSS, was hidden from public view.

The BJP leadership, except for veteran LK Advani, had readily acquiesced to the RSS’s plan and ratified the amendment to the party’s constitution to pave the way for Gadkari’s second term in September 2012. A perception was created in the Saffron brotherhood and outside that Bhagwat’s support for Gadkari would see him through effortlessly. This perception was so strong that even Bhagwat, Gadkari and their loyalists mistook it for reality and considered it a done deal. In their elation they seemed to have forgotten one basic truth: that much like crime syndicates, closed social organisations and political parties, too, thrive on conspiracies.

Bhagwat thought that he would be able to get Gadkari through despite the controversies. PTI

Bhagwat thought that he would be able to get Gadkari through despite the controversies. PTI

Away from the public glare, the seeds of the conspiracy were sown in a piffling event in Bhopal in the middle of December 2012: the election of the President of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh.  Prabhat Jha, the incumbent, was denied a second term by Nitin Gadkari at the behest of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Little did Gadkari realise then that he had scripted the first chapter of the palace coup that would subsequently cost him his own second term. For, Jha owed his political relevance to a very powerful benefactor in the RSS: Suresh Soni.

Soni hails from MP and has a domineering presence in the affairs of the BJP there. The relationship between Soni and Jha is matter of intense of gossip within the parivar and it was a given that Soni would want Jha to continue as state unit president. Soni had a similar role at the national level by virtue of being the interface between the RSS and the BJP. Unlike other RSS pracharaks, Soni, a joint general secretary, picked up the nuances of politics and got himself well-entrenched by playing benefactor to a host of senior BJP leaders. Rajnath Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Sanjay Joshi are some of the leaders known to be close to Soni.

That position of pre-eminence changed with the installation of Gadkari as BJP President. Not only did Gadkari have a direct line to Bhagwat, but Bhagwat himself started getting directly involved in BJP’s affairs, unlike other RSS chiefs before him. This grossly undermined Soni’s influence and he was locked in a silent, running feud with Bhagwat. The marching orders to Jha was designed to further marginalise Soni in his own backyard. Confident of his clout within the RSS, Gadkari looked quite unconcerned to the resentment brewing around him on account of his bullish and hectoring conduct.

Soni was obviously not the one to watch helplessly as his wings were being clipped. Weeks before Jha’s sacking, either by coincidence or otherwise, Gadkari’s shady financial deals in Purti started hitting the headlines. Gadkari was cocksure of getting away with blue murder because of Bhagwat’s open support. This hubris proved to be short-lived as a murder story was thrown into the plot. Ram Jethmalani and son Mahesh Jethmalani started talking about the mysterious death of a teenage girl whose body was found in Gadkari’s car in 2009.

Reports also sought to show a connection between the murder and the shady deals of Purti by pointing out that the driver of the car in which the body was found also figured as “director” on the Purti board.  The intent was to clearly unnerve Gadkari’s benefectors in the RSS, particularly Mohan Bhagwat.

It had the opposite effect. Insiders admit that Bhagwat’s stubbornness stiffened as he saw in it a wider conspiracy to discredit him, the RSS and Gadkari. He believed that a powerful group of BJP leaders close to Advani and a section of the RSS pracharaks (full-timers) owing allegiance to Soni were at the centre of this conspsiracy. Bhagwat summoned the services of chartered accountant and Sangh ideologue S Gurumuthy - assisted by BJP leader and former journalist Balbir Punj - to impress upon Advani the futility of opposing Gadkari. Advani did not dilute his stance though he avoided a direct confrontation with the Sangh.

Advani even mediated a truce between Gadkari and Ram Jethmalani that resulted in the latter’s suspension being revoked but remained firm on Gadkari. RSS General Secretary Bhaiyya Ji Joshi was pressed into service many times to bring around Advani, a job that Soni would have done in normal circumstances. Advani was unrelenting. He made it clear that he was averse to Gadkari’s continuation simply because it would compromise the BJP’s position vis-a-vis the Congress. But that was about it. After three years of being sidelined by Gadkari and standing alone in his moral stance against the latter, Advani was too weak to be able to change the course of things single-handedly.

There are certain maxims which are applicable equally to the underworld and politics. One such maxim is that “my enemy’s enemy is a friend”.  Soni had played a critical role in marginalising Advani in the wake of the Jinnah episode in 2005. He virtually played cat’s paw for the RSS then and accompanied Mohan Bhagwat to Advani’s house to tell him in no uncertain terms that he (Advani) should step down as party president.

Advani’s resistance to Gadkari came in handy for Soni to settle scores with Bhagwat, who was gradually sidelining him in the RSS and the BJP. Other leaders of the BJP lacked Advani’s stature and guts, but they found a ready soul-mate in Soni and aligned their boats secretively with his.

Even at this stage, the Bhagwat-Gadkari combine was so confident of carrying the day that they set an early date for the nomination (23 January).

Party veteran LK Advani had reportedly no desire to see Gadkari become the next party president. AFP

Party veteran LK Advani had reportedly no desire to see Gadkari become the next party president. AFP

Gadkari’s imposition as the party president was guided by the singular impulse of Bhagwat to establish his hegemony over the party. This riled the BJP’s cadre which was rightly assessed by Advani and exploited by Soni and his protégés. To this cauldron was added the sudden raids by the Income Tax department into the shady deals of Purti. Coming just a day before his anointment, this was just the stroke of luck that the baiters of Bhagwat were looking for (though it is difficult to believe that it was just a providential intervention on their behalf). This, coupled with stories about the mysterious death of Yogita Thakre on 19 May 2009, inside the Honda car of Gadkari alarmed the Sangh leadership.

Television channels went ballistic about the raids on the BJP chief's shady firms. The RSS realised that it had ceded the moral ground to Advani and started to back off. Meantime, a close associate of Yashwant Sinha, a known protégé of Soni, collected nomination papers from the party's 11, Ashok Road headquarters in New Delhi. This was a deliberate pressure tactic to suggest that for the first time in its history the election of the party president would actually be contested if Gadkari was not taken out of the equation.

Suddenly, and for the first time, Bhagwat realised that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Even at this stage if he had stood his ground on Gadkari he could have perhaps called Yashwant Sinha’s bluff. But the prospect of carrying the can on behalf of a lameduck BJP President in an election year must have dawned on him and he blinked first.

Advani, who was humiliated and thrown out by the RSS in 2006, won sweet revenge and Suresh Soni demonstrated that he was no pushover. A temporary truce has been established with the ascension of Rajnath Singh who has cultivated an image of being everybody’s man. But it is unlikely that the blood-letting within the Saffron brotherhood will cease. Like the BJP, the RSS is also divided into various powerful groups. But the position of the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS has always towered over these factions and feuds. It is not often that the RSS chief gets directly involved in a fight and is outsmarted by one of his own. And that has a sinister foreboding for the Sangh parivar where faction leaders are fascinated by the motto of Mario Puzo’s Godfather: Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Ajay is Managing Editor, Governance Now

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