A senior editor at Forbes India, Dinesh Narayanan sits in Delhi and writes on policy, politics and economy.
With the election of Rajnath Singh as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s president on Wednesday and Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the Congress vice-president just before, the two national parties have taken up positions for the General elections of 2014.
While Gandhi’s appointment was expected and appears to have rallied Congressmen, Rajnath’s election was a surprise and has perhaps deepened divisions within the party. Until the income tax department raided firms linked to Nitin Gadkari on Tuesday, a second term for him as BJP chief was more or less settled. But the raids forced him to step down and Rajnath found himself in the sweet spot. That Gadkari had the RSS’s backing was without doubt. A senior leader told me that the RSS never proposed anyone’s name to the party. The last time the RSS discussed BJP’s leadership issue, it had only insisted that whoever becomes the president should be a `young’ person who understands the demands of the country’s youth. Gadkari is six years younger than Singh, who is 61.
The RSS has been very conscious of the growing constituency of the young and the need to politically affiliate them to its ideology. It has for some time now stopped insisting on khaki shorts and white shirt uniforms, at the shakhas. Volunteers are allowed to wear sports shorts or cut-offs. Similarly, it also holds virtual shakhas. Though the Sangh is looking at its long-term future, the BJP does not seem to be as savvy as its mentor.
Singh’s rise shows that the party is focusing on the short term or the 2014 national elections. Knowing fully well that Uttar Pradesh holds the key to power in Delhi, the party two days ago welcomed UP leader Kalyan Singh back to its fold. Sources in the BJP say that veteran leaders LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were instrumental in getting him back even though Rajnath Singh and even Joshi have been hostile to Kalyan Singh in the past. The backward leader had left BJP in 2009 and formed Jankranti Party (Rashtrawadi) in 2010. His party merged with the BJP two days ago. Interestingly known Kalyan Singh baiters such as Rajnath Singh and Kalraj Mishra, were present at the merger rally.
Events of the past two days suggest that the old guard led by LK Advani is still the most influential. Though names of other leaders such as Goa chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and former party president Venkaiah Naidu were doing the rounds to replace Gadkari, Rajnath Singh emerged as the consensus candidate. One of the reasons why the party is reluctant to bring regional leaders such as Parrikar to the national level is it believes they can be more effective in their respective states in the elections. States like Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat and Goa are run by relatively young leaders who are capable of winning crucial seats to the Lok Sabha. Just these four states have 68 seats and BJP can count on its regional chieftains to deliver a sizeable chunk of that. It also will win seats with allies in states like Punjab and Bihar.
The numbers will start looking very attractive if it manages to win a majority of seats in Uttar Pradesh. Considering the Samajwadi Party’s poor rule in the state so far and the Congress in disarray, a four corner contest in that state could bring the party dividends. The fourth, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, with its committed cadre and wide base will likely be the party to beat.
With the leadership issue settled in both the national parties, the marathon is now expected to begin.