Being Rajnath Singh
With the Election Commission determining that Indians will know the contours of the new central government on May 16, next two months are going to be crucial for every political party or formation. All opinion polls as well as attendance in election rallies in various parts of the country unmistakably indicate that the advantage lies with Narendra Modi, the Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP-led NDA. Whether this advantage at present will be sustained over the next two months to give the NDA and its new-found allies a clear majority of 273 seats is something that is a different matter. What my column this week wants to focus on is the health or capacity of the BJP, particularly its president Rajnath Singh, to manage the electioneering successfully.
In the euphoria over Modi’s candidature that prevails among the countless admirers of the Gujarat Chief Minister, the crucial role that Rajnath Singh is playing is perhaps not getting due attention. Let me explain this. Few will question the fact that Modi is the most popular leader of the country at the moment. Had it been a Presidential-form of election, a la the American style, he would win hands down. However, in a parliamentary form of government such as ours, winning elections without a party or organisation is a very difficult proposition, notwithstanding howsoever popular one may be. In the case of Modi, his bulk support base lies beyond the BJP, not within. And here comes the importance of Rajnath Singh.
It is an open secret that Modi has not many supporters within the top hierarchy of the BJP leadership. The party veteran L K Advani’s blow hot and blow cold approach towards him is an ongoing phenomenon; the latest that one came across was a newspaper report that he was terribly angry over the manner Modi was trying to make the BJP “a one man-dominated party”. The other party veteran Murli Manohar Joshi, and here one goes by another press report, will never forgive Modi for his “attempts” at snatching the former’s Lok Sabha seat from Banaras. If political grapevine is to be believed, Modi has a troubled equation with Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the latest reflection of this being evident in the manner the BJP was forced by Swaraj to support the Congress in passing the legislation in the Parliament on the formation of Telangana.
It is said that apart from Arun Jaitley, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, if Modi has a consistent supporter in the BJP’s top hierarchy, it is none other than Rajnath Singh. I will not go to the extent of saying that if Singh was not the BJP’s president, Modi would not have become the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate; but one thing is certain that without Rajnath Singh’s support, the decision on Modi’s candidature would have been a turbulent affair. I distinctly remember that most of India’s top political commentators and journalists, many of them being my seniors and very good friends, were not at all sanguine over Modi being the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, given Advani’s antipathy and the importance of the factors of allies and potential allies of the BJP. My counter
argument then was that the decision on Modi could be delayed but not denied, given the pressure from below, that is, second and third rungs of the BJP and RSS. But my seniors and friends were not impressed.
The point that I am making is that it was Rajnath Singh’s cool and steady approach and ability to win over the intra-party dissidence that did the trick. All told, during his first tenure as the party president, Singh himself had a tough time in dealing with Advani, Sushma and Jaitley. This time, he had to win them for Modi. It was certainly not an easy task. Of course, the support from RSS, with which he has been associated since his student days, was a big help. But as the party president, he had to take everybody along and it is to his credit that with the exception of Advani, he made all other top leaders to show rare unanimity in public over Modi’s candidature.
It may be noted here that BJP is not like any other party in the country, at least on two counts. One, there is the undoubted RSS-influence over its functioning. It may be an exaggeration to say that the RSS controls or dictates the BJP, but it is a fact that it influences the party’s functioning to a great deal. Secondly, if one goes through the literature on the BJP or its previous incarnation Jan Sangh, strengthening the party is considered to be a more important job than joining the government. Of course, this is true of every other political party, at least on paper. But that has not been the case in India ever since the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru found out that that an unhelpful party president could always be very problematic. So he combined the posts of Prime Minister and party president in between 1951 and 1954 and after that ensured that for the remaining of his tenure as Prime Minister a faithful was the
party chief. He even made his own daughter, Indira Gandhi, the party president in the process.
Nehru’s decision changed the entire psychology of the Congress workers, who, now onwards, looked at the Prime Minister, not the party president, as the supreme leader. This was challenged by Congress leaders after his death. But Indira, now Prime Minister, split the party and became the party president as well. This practice of combining the Prime Ministership and party presidentship was followed by Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, only to be broken by the UPA regime. It is needless to underscore the fact that Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president has been the real source of power, not the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The absence of a balanced equation between the two has affected the governance, for which the Congress is going to pay dearly.
The lack of a healthy equation between the Prime Minister and party president also undermined the previous NDA regime. In between 1998 and 2004, it was Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, as Prime Minister, was the supreme leader of the BJP, and the party presidents were relatively (with the exception of L K Advani) lightweights. The result was that there was a disconnect between the party and the government, which, in my considered view, was the most important reason why the NDA did not retain power in 2004. In fact, I vividly remember many BJP workers distributing sweets over the party’s defeat at the hustings; such was the disconnect between the BJP as a party and the Vajpayee government! It was obvious that many hardcore BJP activists and RSS workers did not work for the party in the 2004 elections.
And it is in this sense that this time Rajnath Singh, as the party president, has to play an important role in eliminating any possibility of disconnect between the BJP as the party and Modi as the candidate. Of course, if Modi eventually wins, it will be of great interest to see how the mistake during Vajpayee’s premiership of the government getting detached from the party ranks and files is avoided. Will Modi become the party president as well? Or will he pay the due respect to the party President? Will Rajnath Singh remain the party president? Or will he join the Modi cabinet? All these are interesting questions that have to wait till the election results are out.
But in case Singh decides to remain the party president, will Modi give weight to his suggestions and agenda? As it is, Modi and Rajnath Singh are contemporaries, of similar age and seniority. In a sense, it could be argued that Singh, as chief of the BJP’s student wing, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a cabinet minister under Vajpayee (surface transport and agriculture) has a more varied experience in administration than Modi but that is a different matter. Important here is the equation between the two. Both need to complement each other. This is crucial
for another reason.
Modi’s electoral charm lies in his repeated stress on development and good administration. And here he talks of ideas that, in strict sense of the term, are not exactly in tune with BJP’s or for that matter RSS’ traditional lines of thinking. Here again comes the importance of Rajnath Singh, who is conservative in his outlook. I personally do not agree with some of his pet themes such as romance with agriculture (the real problem with Indian agriculture, in my opinion, is not, what Singh says, its negligence, but overdependence on it), but the fact remains that these ideas are dear to myriad members of the BJP and RSS and that no party president, let alone Singh, can overlook them. Of course, Singh, because of his background in science (he taught physics in a UP college before devoting to politics full time) is known for being receptive to different ideas as a part of his overall philosophy of “change in continuity”.
Viewed thus, it is Singh who is the best medium to connect traditional supporters of BJP and RSS with Modi and his non-BJP admirers. In other words, Rajnath Singh’s role is going to be very significant in ensuring Modi’s victory. As the BJP president, Singh knows that in Modi the party has the best man to win the coming elections. And I am sure that Modi also knows it well that in Singh he has the best colleague in the BJP who could ensure the commitment of its traditional cadres and supporters towards his journey to Delhi from Gandhinagar.
By Prakash Nanda