All is Not Well in BJP, Modi-Rajnath Cold War!

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By BIBHUTI PATI, March 31: There were subdued discussions in the BJP party's inner circles when LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were unceremoniously shifted to the mentors group after being dropped from the party's highest decision-making body. Many within the party queried: "Will Rajnath Singh be Modi's next target?"

The controversy of rumour mongering involving Rajnath Singh's son was a symptom of the infighting among senior leaders. There were suggestions from a section of BJP leaders that the rumours, its origin and spread were result of in-house rivalry. The other rumours that are rife in the corridors of power are of how Modi is keeping a close watch on his own colleagues within the party and the government. Even though there is very little to support these charges and counter charges, it is surely a very bad sign for the Modi government.

The grapevine was that a trap was laid for Pankaj Singh on orders from the top, and he walked straight into that. This was followed by him being summoned for a one-to-one chat with the PM. While no veracity of these rumours could be established, it spread thick and fast, from the BJP to the media to the Sangh Parivar.

Rajnath Singh  had come out and declared that he would quit politics if it was proven that he sought a party ticket from Noida for his son for the upcoming by-elections in Uttar Pradesh or that the latter took bribes for arranging the posting of a police official. "I will quit public life and politics the day any allegation on me or my family member is proven true," Singh had said.

Singh's uncharacteristic public outburst had  forced the Prime Minister's Office to issue a statement refuting media reports about Pankaj Singh's alleged misconduct, calling them "plain lies, motivated and malicious attempt" to tarnish the image of the government. While this made Rajnath stand his ground, the damage has been done for all concerned - the party, government and Rajnath. The PMO also denied other rumours relating to PM cautioning some other ministers. Yet the PMO remained silent on the Home Minister’s reported allegation that one of his ministerial colleagues was responsible for spreading the rumour. In the corridors of power, it was known that this minister was none other than Dharmendra Pradhan, the bęte noire of Amit Shah.

When Amit Shah revamped the party's Parliamentary Board and the National Executive, Rajnath Singh's men were kept at an arm's length. Arun Singh, the co-brother-in law of Rajnath Singh was unceremoniously dropped from the National Executive. Arun Singh also happens to be the Prabhari for Odisha. Party watchers see it as an example of Rajnath Singh's declining clout.

With his public statement, Singh broke the vow of silence that all BJP ministers seem to have taken. Rajnath was said to be both hurt and angry about the rumours. More than the rumour itself it was the undercurrent that sent out ripples within the BJP inner circles. Many came to believe that the prime minister’s vigilant eyes and ears spared none, not even his most senior colleague, the supposed number two in the government.

Rajnath has always been the favourite of the RSS. He has been the BJP president twice, the longest serving after Vajpayee and Advani; he also served as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. He was a Union minister in the Vajpayee government and has succeeded in keeping his reputation untainted till date. In fact, as party president, he had stood with Modi when Advani and his aides opposed the Gujarat chief minister's prime ministerial candidacy.

Insiders say that the patch-up between Modi and Rajnath Singh is only on the surface. The rift did not start with the rumour-mongering about Rajnath’s son Pankaj; rather it was a personality clash between two ambitious politicians. There is no room for either friendship or gratitude at the top. Rajnath Singh is a Thakur, and out of 280 BJP members in Lok Sabha, more than one-third belong to this caste. With his clean image and strong personality, this makes him a potential threat.

The fact that Rajnath, as the second in command, chairs cabinet meetings in Modi's absence has not gone down well with some of his ministerial colleagues. However in spite on giving him the second in command slot, Modi operates not through his home minister but through the minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, the young MP from Arunachal West. Rijiju has very little previous experience in governance, in fact he had left the  BJP in 2009 to join the  Congress in his home state and serve as an adviser to the Arunachal chief minister Dorjee Khandu.

Since his appointment, Rijiju has enjoyed a far higher profile than Rajnath. The junior minister reports directly to Modi, and is being used as a trouble shooter by the PM in recent days. Within the first month of office, Modi sent Rijiju to Bangkok for an Asian ministerial conference on disaster risk reduction. During the recent clashes on the Assam-Nagaland border, Rijiju was deputed to visit the area and arrange the deployment of central forces. He has been fielding Parliament questions on Chinese incursions into India.

Rajnath has conspicuously tried to carve a space for himself with regard to the Kashmir problem. On August 11, in a reply to a Rajya Sabha debate, he said that in order to find a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem, the government was willing to have a dialogue within the ambit of insaniyat, a formulation made famous by Vajpayee in April 2003, while extending a hand of friendship out to Pakistan. The very next day, Modi went to Kargil and blasted Pakistan; a week later he cancelled the foreign secretary talks because their high commissioner had chatted with separatist Kashmiris. Rajnath’s "insaniyat" pledge has been dumped in the dustbin.

Jaitley, the closest person in government to Modi, is also seen as Rajnath's rival for the number two position in government. His coterie includes the likes of Dharmendra Pradhan, Smriti Irani, J.P.Nadda, Ananta Kumar etc. In fact there is a cold war going on between Dharmendra Pradhan and Rajnath, the two have rarely been seen together. In fact Dharmendra has been ticked off by Modi for his anti- Rajnath tirades.

Rajnath is ambitious and according to those close to him, he wants to make his mark with something substantial. Modi’s suffocating tight grip on government is choking for many of his ministers. Ego clashes in the top are not new. The first men to hold Modi's and Rajnath's posts in independent India, were Nehru and Patel, they were rivals and had fundamental differences on Kashmir and Tibet. Yet they never parted ways or undermined one another; their differences were noted in letters which are now part of history. Even Vajpayee and his home minister Advani had differences. Even today, the Pakistanis blame Advani for scuttling the 2001 Agra summit, where Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf nearly inked an accord. Yet Vajpayee and Advani never fell out; in fact, the hardliner Advani was deployed to conduct the government’s dialogue with the separatist Hurriyat Conference. Will Rajnath too have similar marriage of inconvenience with Modi or will their split be wide open?

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