The Rise Of Rajnath
Three years ago, when Rajnath Singh handed over the baton to Nitin Gadkari, he moved out of the office after having achieved a feat of serviving as BJP president for an extended term of four full years. He had broken a jinx encircling the BJP president’s office for long as no one had been able to complete the full term in office since 2000.
First to go was Bangaru Laxman who had to exit unceremoniously in the wake of Tehalka expose and then successive party chiefs, Jena Krsihnamuthy, Venkaiah Naidu and LK Advani had to quit office mid-way on one pretext or the other. A person of Advani’s stature had to resign due to confrontation with the RSS on Jinnah controversy. That event, concluding on December 30, 2005 at BJP National Council meeting in Mumbai, marked a sea change in the relation of the RSS-BJP. The RSS was no longer just the ideological fountainhead still pretty at distant Nagpur but was now bent upon taking control of the BJP. Rajnath Singh was the chosen one and he had to perform a tough task with rather delicate touch.
He managed to sail through for four years 2006-10 with occasional rough patches. Since the time he relinquished office in January 2010, he preferred to take it easy and get into activism only when required. His low-key semi-retirement mode made him keep away from any controversy and win friends including those he had rubbed the wrong way during his term in office. Looking back it would appear to be a masterly strategy on his part but it had come naturally to Rajnath, a firm believer in faith, fate and destiny.
So when on the evening of January 22, 2013, just 12 hours ahead of the done deal with Gadkari, a favoured protégé of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, was to be declared “re-elected”, to continue to be at the helm through 2014 parliamentary elections and thereafter till January of 2016, the ripple effects of fresh rounds of field surveys by Income Tax sleuths on six companies relating to Purti Group started being felt in Nagpur and New Delhi, Rajnath emerged as the only alternate choice.
By noon on January 23, Rajnath had scripted a golden chapter for himself in BJP’s history—only other leader than the two BJP stalwarts, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani to get a second term in office, and also be at the helm at two successive parliamentary elections, 2009 and 2014 (or if held earlier). Murli Manohar Joshi with all his efforts did not get a second term and that’s his grudge till date against the RSS and against his own colleagues in the party.
Rajnath’s surprise nomination as party president contained a message: if the Congress had posed greater faith in its dynastic system by elevating Rahul Gandhi to the post of vice-president, the BJP is giving organisational command to a son of soil and was gearing up to 2014 in a different way. Rahul may have made Congressmen cry with his emotional anecdotes of family’s trauma of living through despair and hope, Rajnath’s assertiveness coincidentally timed with Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s ill-received charge of BJP and RSS sponsored Hindu or saffron terrorism, surcharged mood of party cadre against rival Congress.
It also sends a message to its sympathisers and to the people at large that the party and the Parivar were not passive to popular opinion. It would now seek to regain probity plank vis-à-vis the Congress. The party had started losing in popular perception since October last year when the news on Purti broke in the open. Constrained by undoing of its own party president, the BJP couldn’t target Congress with any vigour on Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra’s deal with DLF. With Gadkari dropped from leadership position and with Rajnath’s clean image at the forefront, the BJP would rework on its strategy to take on Congress on corruption.
The BJP has to fight it out with Congress in next round of assembly elections—Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi to be followed by parliamentary elections. But to get his gigantic organisation in battle worthy mode he first has to unify the party under his command. The wounds of some blood letting in the ranks on the night of January 22 when the final decision to drop Gadkari and bring back Rajnath was taken are still fresh among leaders in party and Sangh Parivar. There is also a likelihood of fresh bouts of intra-party wrangling. Singh’s ability would be tested in not letting that happen and make all warlords work for singular purpose to humble rival Congress.
Rajnath has to ensure that he keeps RSS trust in him in perpetuity. There lies his real challenge, work as per the mandate given by Nagpur and at the same time try to have political autonomy of the BJP.
The fact that he had been BJP president earlier and gone through this grind, made it easier for him to get to the work right from the word go. The first clincher for him came on Sunday when Narendra Modi flew from Ahmedabad to New Delhi to have two-and-half-hour-long luncheon meeting with Rajnath Singh. Modi had not sought or extended this kind of courtesy to the previous president nor to any other New Delhi-based senior leader. Though the party’s rank and file don’t have an idea as to what kind of future road map did they formulate but the fact that they came out looking happy with each other and declared that they discussed about the scheduled 2014 parliament elections in detail gave a great sense of relief to them. Rajnath had already hinted at a larger role for Modi. It could begin with his return as member in Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee.
There is a sense that this was perhaps one such move in the long list of desirables that the party had been desperately looking for long. He and Narendra Modi had a bit of sweet and sour relationship during his previous term in office, but they have made friends in the past few months. Rajnath was there in Gujarat with Arun Jaitley to flag off Modi’s pre-poll Vivekanand Youth Yatra and then campaigned during elections and was seen prominently on the dais during swearing-in ceremony. How Rajnath-Modi combo develops would be an interesting thing to watch.
A day later, on Monday, Rajnath’s visit to RSS headquarters was significant. This is his first visit to Nagpur after he became party president in a surprise move. Beyond the common courtesy, he was expected to discuss some serious business.
Rajnath was also conscious that he expressed solidarity with Gadkari in his hour of crisis. Before visiting RSS brass for consultation, he shared the dais with his predecessor in Vidarbha region just to convey the message that the party stood by him. He had, after all, stood in thick and thin with Gadkari. He had proposed amendment in BJP constitution on two occasions with singular purpose to benefit Gadkari, first a resolution at Mumbai National Executive and then at Surajkund National Council for ratification, to allow a person to hold the post for two terms of three years in succession.
To vast mass of party workers he comes as a person with long-earned experience in administration and organisation with a clean image. He has neither been a usurper nor a claimant to the throne, it came to him by default and he did not hide it. In fact, he said so in his public speech and then in media interviews, which has only added to his grace and humility. The fact that Rajnath Singh belongs to dominant Rajput community in Uttar Pradesh and had been chief minister there, could help party find its lost ground in the key Hindi heartland state, which sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha.
THE ADVANI CONNECTION
A few days back, I asked Mr Advani, “Why don’t you announce to the world publicly that you are not going to be the prime ministerial candidate for BJP in the 2014 elections?”
He smiled and replied, “Why should I? I never said that I wanted to be the candidate.” So now why should I announce I am not the candidate.” He added, “Rahul Gandhi is not announcing that he is the candidate for the prime minister’s post or alternatively that Manmohan Singh will continue? As always it is the party who will decide.”
When Advani announced his last Rath Yatra, speculation began about whether or not he wanted to be the PM candidate. But then he met Mr Mohan Bhagwat at Nagpur and announced publicly that RSS had given him everything in his life. No position or chair is more important than that. I don’t remember the exact language that Advani had used, but the theme of this expression was clear.
I have known Advani for the last 25 years. I have been a very close onlooker of his politics. At a personal level, I like and respect him. I have always made it clear that I might not be a supporter of BJP and I may disagree with his activities. But I believe that he’s a transparent and honest politician, a rare virtue in today’s politics. Honest politicians have all but gone extinct today, Advani in spite of his age remains quite active.
So now that the nation is gradually inching towards the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and Rajnath Singh has become the party president, the question of what Advani’s role is going to be becomes very important.
There is no full stop in politics. It’s always changing. Julius Caesar was not ready to accept this change, but one has to accept the hard reality. Advaniji is the tallest leader of BJP and everybody in the party accepts his instrumental contribution to the party. By the Ram Moadir movement, Advani almost single-handedly transformed BJP a party with two members in Parliament to one with almost 200 members.
But after his Pakistan trip, he realised his supporters can also challenge him. On the Jinnah issue, he was grossly misunderstood by the RSS and his party. I was in Pakistan with him at the time. There was a major communication error which he later clarified to the party and Nagpur, but I know that till today the RSS bosses haven’t been able to digest Advani’s words in Pakistan.
Struggle for leadership is not rare in politics. In the West, it has happened. In our country, it has happened between Gandhiji and Subhash Chandra Bose and between Nehru and Patel.
But In BJP after Rajnath became president, I think it is advantage to BJP. Ask me why? Firstly, Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma—all these leaders wanted change. Nitin Gadkari as a person was always a flexible and negotiable. Not egoistic, he always tried to accommodate others, but Advani is a hyper person when the issue of corruption comes. I saw him in the same mood when the issue of Karnataka came. Electoral victory or no victory, he has an ideological position and after this change there is a certain exuberance within the party.
Secondly, the RSS has shown that although they are the super-boss, they can also listen to what the party thinks. It is true Advani’s choice for president was Sushma and not Rajnath, but the RSS accepted the demand of BJP broadly. I believe this is a sign of democracy.
Rajnath Singh will have to attempt to move with all of them. Jaitely supported him and Rajnath wants a good relationship with Advani as well. After Vajpayee, Rajnath is the next logical person to occupy the role of the dhoti-clad North Indian BJP leader. The BJP is thinking that in 2014, the top priority should be the north Indian Hindi heartland. The party wants to consolidate its old vote bank areas, the RSS is also thinking in terms of expansion of the NDA after the elections.
Thirdly, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is unstoppable. The BJP leaders have to accept the fact that in the coming elections, the party has to choose the face of Narendra Modi. That’s why Modi’s immediate meeting with Rajnath is very significant. Modi beyond Gujrat is now accepted by the Sangh too.
It is true that there is still great debate about this. If Narendra Modi is the candidate then polarisation in elections may occur. Will it help BJP? A lot of Congress leaders think it can help Congress what happened in the last Lok Sabha elections in UP. If Modi comes then Congress will bring up Godhra. The Muslim vote will come to Congress and UPA allies. Nitish Kumar will quit and the split of NDA will affect BJP. The possibility of expansion of NDA will be less. I think Advani is always in favour of NDA. That’s why Rajnath said his job is to strengthen the BJP and Advani will take care of NDA.
Interesting days lie ahead. The Sangh thinks now BJP’s growth should be the top priority. So Rajnath and Narendra- this combination will work now. But Advani’s role will remain very important. He is the mentor of the party and he can use his veto power. Rajnath’s main challenge is not only outside BJP but inside BJP also—how much inclusivist approach he can take!
By Jayant Ghosal
Apart from marshalling out a better organisational set up and improving prospects of winnability of the party, the big test for the leader will be in strengthening and expanding of NDA. This is a factor where he has some advantage. While he has good equations with practically all his colleagues, he shares a fine rapport with all NDA current and potential allies. Even if he had been party president in the past he carries no baggage. His supporters believe he can bring more on the table when the time of reckoning comes. His direct rapport with Nitish Kumar as also with other allies will be helpful in negotiating name of NDA prime ministerial candidate, should the BJP decide to project Modi as its leader.
In 2009 parliamentary elections, Rajnath worked as party chief for Advani as NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. A decade prior to that as Uttar Pradesh BJP party president he worked to make Kalyan Singh as chief minister of the state. He twice ensured that numbers were by Kalyan Singh government’s side even if it came by engineering large-scale defections in Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress party.
Though he himself could be in the reckoning for the top post in 2014, his supporters believe that he has the ability to work with equal ease in case he will have to garner numbers for Modi. His strong belief in fate and destiny does not let him “aspire or conspire” for self, they say.
Born on July 10, 1951, in a farmer’s family at Babhora village, tehsil Chakia, district Varansi (now Chanduli) UP, Rajnath received his basic education at a village school and subsequently he completed his masters in Physics from Gorakhapur University. Before taking plunge in electoral politics, he worked as a lecturer of Physics at KB Postgraduate College Mirzapur.
Rajnath moved up the ladder slowly but without ever pausing for a breath. His political ride has been up, up and up. He became the RSS karyavah (general secretary) of Mirzapur city in 1972 after being organisation secretary of ABVP Gorakhpur division from 1969 to 1971. He entered politics in 1974 and soon became secretary of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Mirzapur. In 1975, he became district president of Jana Sangh and district coordinator of JP Movement.
A moment of personal tragedy for him came when his mother, Gujarati Devi died while he was imprisoned during emergency. He, however, was denied parole to attend her funeral.
When the elections took place after emergency in 1977, he was elected as an MLA for UP Assembly. In 1983, he became a state secretary of UP BJP and in 1984, he became a state president of BJP’s Youth Wing (BJYM). In 1986, he became national general secretary of BJYM and subsequently national president of BJYM in 1988.
He was elected MLC for UP Legislative Council in 1988 and became education minister in 1991. During his tenure as education minister in UP, he established some landmarks by introducing the Anti Copying Act and Vedic Mathematics in the syllabus and correction of various portions of history textbooks. He became Rajya Sabha member in 1994 and also the chief whip of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha. In March 1997, he became state president of BJP in Uttar Pradesh. During this period, apart from expanding and strengthening the organisation, he played a key role in saving the BJP-led government twice during the political crisis.
On November 22, 1999, he became Union surface transport minister. During this period, he got the opportunity to initiate the NHDP (National Highway Development Programme), a dream project of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On October 28, 2000, he became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. After BJP lost power in UP in 2002, he was made party’s national general secretary.
In May 2003, he became Union Minister of Agriculture and subsequently for food processing. Again after Vajpayee government lost in May 2004 to the Congress-led UPA, Rajnath was appointed as national general secretary of the party. As a general secretary he held the charge of two states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and as the results would have it, the BJP won in both these states.
If he was a surprise announcement as party president in December 2005, the surprise factor came for a repeat on January 22, 2013. Like last time he has to take party to the parliamentary polls but there he has to make a difference this time. Unlike last time, he has to make the party win to write a golden chapter for party. If he is able to do so, many more chapters would be written on him.
By Deepak Kumar Rath