How far will Advani go to scuttle Modi's bid for the top job?

by FP Politics  Jun 5, 2013 07:35 IST

#Arun Jaitley   #BJP   #LK Advani   #Narendra Modi   #PowerGames   #Rajnath Singh  

In the week leading up to the BJP national executive meeting, the shadow play within the senior leadership of the party is intensifying. However, for those wishing to read the tea leaves to get a sense of whether and how the party's leadership will settle the top-dollar question - the party's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 election -  the thrust and parry of the various combatants and their proxies has provided no great clarity.

By far the most contentious contribution to the discourse has come from senior BJP leader LK Advani, whose words and deeds have been read widely as being intended to scuttle Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's prospects of becoming the party's prime ministerial candidate.

BJP spokespersons - from Arun Jaitley to Nirmala Sitharaman - have been at pains to claim that too much is being read into Advani's comments, in which he appeared to play up Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan's contributions in spurring his State's economic development and, in the estimation of some analysts, downplay Modi's efforts in Gujarat. Appearing on a CNN-IBN panel discussion on Tuesday, social commentator Pushpesh Pant too suggested that too much gravitas was being attached to the sagely pronouncements of a Bhishma Pitamah.

LK Advani is facing a pushback from the BJP cadres for scuttling Modi's career path. PTI

LK Advani is facing a pushback from the BJP cadres for scuttling Modi's career path. PTI

But as Modi's response to Advani's comments itself suggests that not all is well within the BJP. According to a report in The Pioneer, which makes no secret of its BJP leanings, Modi was so incensed by Advani's remarks that he called BJP president Rajnath Singh and gave voice to his displeasure. It was after that that Rajnath Singh pointedly noted that Modi was by far the BJP's most popular leader.

Other media reports, particularly this one in The Telegraph, noted that no such call had been made by Modi to Rajnath Singh, but claimed coyly that "it is possible that (Modi's) sentiments were conveyed to the president through other channels." Whatever the sequence of events, the BJP president did call on Advani at his residence - and discussed, among other things, the latter's comparison of Chauhan with Modi.

The report claimed, citing a source close to Advani, that that the veteran leader "stood his ground and, at one point, asked Rajnath Singh who he should have extolled before Madhya Pradesh's '20,000 BJP foot soldiers' who were fighting to defend a third term for the chief ministerm,"  particularly since elections are due in the State later this year.

In anguish, Advani is understood to have wondered if things had come to such a pass in the BJP that one of its Chief Ministers could not stomach praise being paid from a senior leader to a peer. "The CMs are supposed to work like comrades, not competitors," Advani is believed to have told Rajnath Singh.

Appearing on Karan Thapar's talk show on Tuesday, Outlook's political editor Saba Naqvi suggested that Advani was working to a strategy, and knew full well the import of his comments. She even disclosed that a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh had confided in her that the party's game plan was to harvest Modi's popularity by suggesting (without actually committing itself) that he would be made prime minister, but then "dump him" afterwards in the interest of forming a broader coalition.

On the other hand, Advani's effort to prop up former BJP president Nitin Gadkari as the head of the BJP election campaign panel - which too was seen as an effort to crowd out Modi - has flopped, with Gadkari declining to be caught up in the power games in the party.

Strikingly, it was Advani who played a pivotal role in easing Gadkari out of the party presidentship following the charges levelled against his corporate interests. Gadkari claimed that Advani  and Sushma Swaraj had reached out to him with the offer, but he had declaimed it on the ground that he would be busy with his own election from Nagpur.

All of Advani's strenuous efforts have analysts wondering just how far he will go to scuttle what is being widely seen as a strong upsurge of grassroots-level sentiment in favour of Modi, and precisely what rationale the veteran leader is being governed by.

In any case, whatever the motive, it appears that the Goa conclave will bring matters to a head within the BJP. Media reports, quoting unidentified BJP sources, have claimed that "even if Rajnath Singh sat over an announcement of Modi’s ascendancy on the national stage for a while, the Goa meet could unleash counter pressures to force Advani to “accept the inevitable” — that is, Modi’s 'pre-eminence' in the BJP."

A week, it has been well said, is a long time in politics.  For the BJP, which is in the throes of a divisive leadership tussle, the next week could prove an eternity.