“What do you think is the real status of Narendra Modi in the BJP?”, a Tier-3 leader at the party's National Council meeting asked this correspondent during the tea break of the concluding session yesterday. But he did not pause for an answer, and his queries became more pointed: “Is he just like any other Chief Minister? Should he not be seen formulating larger party policies here? Will they ever project him as leader for the 2014 parliamentary election?”
He was sounding slightly agitated. After a while, it became clear that he was not seeking an answer, but giving vent to his feelings. Or at best he wanted to engage in a debate. He was not the only one at the BJP’s bash asking these questions, or to put it more appropriately, pronouncing a verdict on these questions.
The kind of rousing reception Modi got while entering the conclave at Surajkund on the Delhi-Haryana border is a clear indicator of his popularity among lower-level party workers. But among the top leadership, it's more a game of chess played by seen and unseen hands.
A party general secretary was more forthright in his views. “No matter what they do (Modi's rivals in the party), they can’t stop him. He knows that small tricks could be played against him but he is a man of the masses and a strategist. He too is playing the game, but it’s not the time yet to rush into the penalty area.”
This statement perhaps reflects the actual situation in the BJP where some of the stakeholders at the top are either both attacking the Congress and manoeuvring for status within their own party. Apart from Modi, there are at least two or three others who are happy to be positioning themselves in the short-list of candidates for the top job if luck favours them, or if some of the main players fall by the wayside for some reason or the other.
Yesterday, fulsome praise was showered on Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan by party president Nitin Gadkari at the cost of others in his peer group, including Modi. This raised many eyebrows. In politics, after all, nothing just happens by chance.
Modi knew that if he did not make enough news inside the Council meet, he would have to do it elsewhere. He chose a bigger platform, a public meeting, to make headlines today, where he linked FDI in retail to Sonia Gandhi's US trip. There was no initial confirmation that he would be speaking at the rally.
A prominent party leader, having equal clout in the RSS and the party, said there was no doubt that Modi was head and shoulders above others, but the problem was he is not under the command of central party headquarters. In contrast, Chouhan does his job quietly and also keeps the leadership in Delhi and Nagpur in good humor. The central leaders draw strength from their states, instead of vice-versa. With Modi on his own, Karnataka out of the reckoning, Shivraj Chouhan is the only one left at the helm in one of the bigger states for this kind of a mutually beneficial relationship.
Modi’s name was removed from party’s all-powerful Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee a few years back during the presidency of Rajnath Singh. The plea was that no other chief minister was there in that panel. Modi, on his part, had made his attendance rare in those committee meetings. The signal then was that the two sides — Modi and party headquarters — did not care much for each other’s concerns.
More recently, the Gujarat strongman made his primacy clear in the Sanjay Joshi episode when he got him thrown out of the National Executive and also made him “withdraw” his membership of the BJP. The RSS has never been humbled this way by any BJP leader.
The next cue to watch for supremacy is the Gujarat poll. No one in the party doubts that Modi will win, but a lot depends on how big he wins. Political developments in the BJP will be shaped by the Gujarat results.