There are many warning signs for the BJP in Jaswant Singh’s open revolt against being denied a ticket to contest from Barmer in Rajasthan. Sushma Swaraj’s public show of support for Singh, defying the party leadership’s decision, is evidence of a looming factional war in the BJP that threatens to spill over. A section of the old guard — comprising LK Advani, Sushma, Jaswant, and other Advani loyalists — realise they are being sidelined. But caught in the pronounced anti-incumbency wave sweeping the country, and the fanatical following that Narendra Modi has aroused among party cadre, the dissidents will have to lie low for the moment.
Any act, seen as weakening the election campaign, will scar the dissidents rather than the party leadership, because the imperative now is to return to power after 10 years in the wilderness. Arun Jaitley’s blog advising Jaswant to take the party’s rebuff with a “smile” and prefer loyalty, discipline and silence will not be lost on the dissidents. If it was meant to sound conciliatory, Rajnath Singh’s promise to accommodate Jaswant suitably only added insult to injury. The signs are clear that Modi followed by Rajnath and Jaitley are in complete control over the BJP now.
But this new axis must exercise caution where it is due. Where other parties like the Congress and the AAP have struggled and expended much energy to counter negative perceptions, the BJP’s only tactical mistakes have been the ones made in recent days. That the Barmer ticket was granted to a former Congressman who crossed over, will earn much sympathy for Jaswant within the party, if not among his Rajput kinsmen. Close on the heels of Advani being denied his wish to shift to Bhopal, comes the denial of a ticket to his loyalist and seven-time MP Harin Pathak. Despite its merits, Sushma’s objections to the tainted Bellary leader B Sriramulu were flatly ignored.
Notwithstanding successive electoral victories, the intolerance to dissenting views and the consequent denial of opportunities, saw senior leaders leave the Gujarat BJP. Leaders like Advani and Jaswant are already criticising changes in the party’s style of functioning. Modi must take along those opposed to him. Leaders in absolute control of both party and government are wont to make errors. A succession of Congress leaders — Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv, PV Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi — did not suffer dissidents easily but ended up suffering for the lack of dissenters to flawed policies.
A resurgent BJP has gladly welcomed opposition politicians, including those from the Congress. But, ironically, it was an ideological fellow-traveller’s entry that backfired. The decision to admit Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muttalik — aimed at corralling its right-wing support base — was at odds with the BJP’s recent focus on economy, development, and women’s safety. But the claim that such an important re-entry was cleared locally, and not by the central leadership, hardly passes muster. In one stroke, the BJP came close to ceding its campaign against attacks on women.
The frequent outbursts by senior leaders and their fears of marginalisation in a year of impressive gains do not bode well for the BJP. Neither does the admission of politicians facing the taint of corruption and criminal charges or those opportunistically changing sides on election-eve. Despite the RSS stepping in occasionally to resolve thorny issues, the BJP’s inner-party democracy has enabled it to make critical ideological adjustments and facilitated Modi’s — a regional leader — rise up the hierarchy. With those who owe their present ascendancy in the central leadership to this attribute of collective leadership vests the burden of preserving the BJP’s internal democracy.