India’s leading opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is witnessing a putsch of a kind rarely seen in the country’s electoral history.
In the last few days, several veteran BJP leaders have found themselves publicly embarrassed and all but marginalised in a coup d’état of sorts engineered by the party’s new power agglomerate led by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
With the all-important elections to the lower house of parliament starting in a few weeks, there is growing speculation that the Modi-led group is tightening its grip over the party by sidelining others who did not belong to their camp.
BJP co-founder and the grand old man of the party L K Advani, credited with nurturing the party and making it count as the leading opponent of the dominant Congress party, finds himself pushed out of the decision-making process.
His wish, to contest from Bhopal in central Madhya Pradesh state was rejected and instead he was forced to accept Gandhinagar in western Gujarat state as his constituency.
Another heavyweight in the party and erstwhile foreign minister Jaswant Singh was denied a ticket from Barmer constituency in western Rajasthan state. An emotional Singh has revolted against the party and filed his nomination as an independent. He told reporters “there is more arrogance and less of taking everyone together.”
Murli Manohar Joshi, who was until not long ago considered part of the triumvirate along with former prime minister Atal Behar Vajpayee and Advani, was unceremoniously asked to vacate his seat in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in northern Uttar Pradesh state and make way for Modi to contest from there.
Harin Pathak, a long time MP from Ahmedabad east and an influential BJP leader from Gujarat too has found himself high and dry, denied nomination from a constituency from where he was elected seven times. Crucially, he was considered an associate of Advani.
Another Advani aide and a potential prime ministerial candidate Sushma Swaraj too is out in the cold, with the Modi-led leadership ignoring her views on candidate selection. Swaraj revealed to reporters that the denial of ticket to Singh was not discussed in the party’s election committee and said “I am personally saddened by this decision”.
Senior leaders not getting tickets from their political parties to contest elections or being sidelined, is not new to India’s politics nor is it confined to the BJP.
But what differentiates the BJP’s actions is the fact that the top brass who have been sidelined are all those who formed the nerve centre of the party until recently. In fact, Modi himself was the protégé of Advani and without the senior leader’s protective embrace could not have metamorphosed into the face of the BJP.
It is widely acknowledged that the parent organisation of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, is firmly behind Modi and is betting on him to go all out to capture power in Delhi in the national elections over the next few weeks.
Senior journalist and commentator A S Panneerselvan said the BJP’s latest moves indicated over-confidence and it could pay a price as a consequence.”Their fortunes have probably peaked already and are now going downhill,” he said.
RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat has described the sidelining of veteran BJP leaders as a change that was inevitable. At an event in Delhi, he defended the party leadership. “It is said that change is inevitable. According to time, whatever changes required have to be done…to let the journey be successful and constant,” he said.
A one-time Advani aide and now a Modi camp-follower, Arun Jaitley, was more sarcastic. “A politician or a leader denied a ticket must accept the decision with a smile,” he wrote in a blog.
With opinion polls and the media predicting a BJP-led government headed by Modi, the veritable purge of the old guard in the party looks like a premeditated move to preclude the possibility of an alternative power centre.
The purge could also have another hidden agenda: should the election outcome not match the opinion polls and if the BJP falls way short of getting the magic figure for staking claim to form the next government, it is feared that allies could demand a more moderate leader to head it rather than Modi known to be intolerent of dissent.
His mentor Advani is seen as a natural choice, so too the other sidelined party veterans.
The putsch may be an attempt to extinguish any such possibility. Veteran journalist and political analyst Bharat Bhusan described the emergence of Modi over Advani as an exercise in “realpolitik:”. “Why would Modi want to do the hard job of leading the campaign and then hand over power to Advani?” Bhusan told Al Jazeera.
According to historian Ramchandra Guha in the Economic Times, “As an outsider, it is clear in the last few months that Mr Modi is emphatically asserting his leadership in BJP. He is an authoritarian personality and wants everyone to fall in line. With a paranoid personality like his, one can either be his subordinate or an enemy. Modi bends people to his will.”
The closest this compares to is when Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to power in 1966.
The Congress party’s organisation was powerful at the time with the leadership comprising highly-respected leaders like Kamaraj who had been in the forefront of the freedom struggle.
Gandhi, who realised that as prime minister her powers were hampered as she was accountable to the Congress party, systematically went about undermining the organisation. Soon, she split the Congress party and came away with one faction that was completely loyal to her.
Gandhi went on to consolidate her hold over the faction, turning this into a new version of the Congress which swore loyalty to her alone. This stood Gandhi in good stead leading up to the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 which did not evoke even a murmur of dissent within her party even as India’s democracy was subverted.
To this day, Gandhi’s legacy runs deep. Politicians in the party can only survive and flourish if they uphold loyalty to the Gandhi family, now represented by Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi and her (Indira’s) grandson Rahul Gandhi.
The BJP, on the contrary, prided itself as a party with a difference. Its organisation boasted of leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee, Advani and Jaswant Singh who made it appear that they took collective decisions and were accountable to one another.
After the BJP-led coalition government was defeated in 2004, its leader Vajpayee fell ill and has since been ailing and out of action. Advani, as his lieutenant, was seen as the natural successor, but under his leadership the party failed to win the 2009 elections.
The post-2009 phase has seen the gradual rise of Modi as the new leader, despite accusations against him over his alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots. A lower court has cleared him of the allegations.
In Gujarat, once Modi came to power in 2001, BJP veterans like Keshubhai Patel who he replaced as chief minister, and other party colleagues like Sanjay Joshi and the now-deceased Hiren Pandya among others, were all sidelined.
Only those with unquestioned loyalty to Modi like Amit Shah have managed to remain.
It is in this context that a similar scenario is repeating itself in the BJP’s national headquarters. Only this time, the actions are pre-emptive, in anticipation of a Modi win.
If that indeed does come to pass, the BJP would have succeeded in become a clone of the Congress where most, if not all, decisions are taken by one individual.