BJP: The War Within

Following the massive drubbing in Karnataka, the gloves are clearly off for yet another round of infighting in the principal opposition party

Poornima Joshi Delhi 

In the aftermath of the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 general election, the first top leader to make an appearance at the party’s headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, was the late Pramod Mahajan. Pale as a ghost, Mahajan announced, “I take responsibility for the defeat.” In the hours and days to come, no one else in the BJP felt the need to share Mahajan’s burden. He would later observe, not without irony, that it was true that he took responsibility, “but it is also true that everyone gladly handed it to me”.

Whatever his faults, the BJP sorely misses a leader like Mahajan now as it reels from the aftershocks of its decisive defeat in Karnataka, a state that was supposed to be the saffron party’s toe-hold for further expansion in southern India. The contrast with the present flock is even starker, given the blame game that it is currently engaged in. The first target of attack is party patriarch LK Advani who has not made any secret of his distaste for the way Arun Jaitley and former party president Nitin Gadkari handled things in the state. (Jaitley loyalist Dharmendra Pradhan is currently prabhari of Karnataka, while Jaitley is overall in-charge.) Another target is the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj.

In a public display of intra-party tension and factionalism, a crony of BS Yeddyurappa, BJP MLC Lehar Singh, openly targetted Advani. The subtext was that it was Advani who forced Yeddyurappa to quit the BJP and form his own outfit, a move that severely damaged the Saffron party’s prospects. Lehar did not restrict his attack to Advani. He publicly cast aspersions on Advani’s current favourite, Swaraj, describing her as the “Godmother” of the mining mafia, and warned Advani against blaming others and washing his hands of the Karnataka affair by taking a high moral stand.

“You always speak of ‘zero tolerance’ towards corruption. But, ironically, the compromise with the mining mafia was offered to you, then, as a ‘birthday gift’. Do I need to tell you where the mining mafia are today? Have you ever expressed regret for this compromise you forced on the government and the party in any of your blog entries or public speeches? Have you ever questioned Sushmaji on her long association with the mining mafia and the nature of that association which is a subject of drawing room and newsroom gossip? The mining mafia referred to her always as their mother and she basked in that affection for years,” Lehar said in his May 13 letter to Advani.

He went on to make repeated allegations against Swaraj. “One final point, Advaniji. At the national executive held at Talkatora, during your valedictory address, you said you saw the image of Atalji in Sushmaji. This, many of us workers and functionaries thought, was going a little too far. Can anybody be compared to Atalji in the party? We know you have a very special corner for Sushmaji in your heart, that is your private affection, but kindly desist from comparing her to an icon like Atal Bihari Vajpayee in future. This is because she is perceived as the ‘Godmother’ of the mining mafia in Karnataka by the entire nation,”
said Lehar.

Advani, on his part, has already declared that it was “immoral” behaviour by leaders at the central level, namely, Gadkari and Jaitley, and “opportunism” that resulted in the party’s defeat.   

“I feel sorry that we have lost in Karnataka. But I am not surprised. The surprise would have been if we had won. As it is, I think the Karnataka results have a profound lesson for the BJP. In a way it has a lesson also for the Congress. The common lesson for both of us is: let’s not take the common man for granted. He himself may occasionally deviate from the norms of ethical conduct, but he does feel extremely angry when he sees those at the helm of national affairs behaving immorally,” said Advani, pulling no punches.

The senior leader strongly countered the attacks made on him and said, contrary to what is being said, the BJP’s “moral” stand in view of scams surrounding Yeddyurappa when he was chief minister helps the party and its politics. “There have been press reports that we lost Karnataka because we threw out Yeddyurappa. I have seen comments by eminent pressmen taunting the BJP. See how Soniaji overlooked the shortcomings of Virbhadra Singh and earned an advantage for the Congress. BJP prides itself on taking a principled stand in Karnataka. The consequence is that the BJP has lost even the ‘toehold it had acquired in the south’. Let me first point out that the BJP did not throw out Yeddi; it is he who broke away from the BJP and decided to form a factional party of his own, the KJP. In fact, when it became apparent that he was unabashedly indulging in corruption, if the party had immediately taken firm action, the course of events would have been quite different,” he added.

Lehar has since been suspended but, in the light of the fact that his mentor, Yeddyurappa, may stage a comeback to the BJP in the months to come, he is clearly the man from whose shoulder a lot of ammunition will be fired. Yeddyurappa has made no secret of his admiration for Narendra Modi who now happens to be a member of the BJP’s highest decision-making body, the parliamentary board. In the coming months, Modi and Jaitley may engineer a homecoming for Yeddyurappa and this alliance can become a decisive faction against Advani and Swaraj. 

Swaraj has so far said nothing on the Karnataka affair, but she has consistently been in the line of fire over her association with the infamous Reddy brothers, both of whom had been inducted in the Yeddyurappa cabinet, apparently against his wishes. Yeddyurappa, in fact, had to sacrifice the ministerial ambitions of his friend, Shobha Karandlaje, because the Reddys had to be accommodated.

Sushma Swaraj is clearly not going to suffer in silence as yet another round of what she describes as a ‘disinformation campaign’ is set in motion

Interestingly, Swaraj had, in a party meeting in May 2011, turned on Jaitley for what she believed to be a disinformation campaign based on her proximity to the infamous Bellary brothers of Karnataka. She told Jaitley and others present in the meeting that she wouldn’t “say a word in opposition” if they were to drop all three Bellary brothers — Harapanahalli MLA Gali Karunakara Reddy, Bellary MLA B Sriramulu and
MLC Gali Janardhan Reddy — from the Karnataka cabinet.

Following this outburst, Swaraj told Outlook magazine that it was Jaitley, who, in his capacity as Karnataka in-charge, promoted the Bellary brothers. She also said she herself was opposed to the appointment of three members of a family as ministers but they were selected because of “political compulsions”. “When the Bellary brothers were made ministers, Jaitleyji was prabhari (central leader in charge of state party affairs), BS Yeddyurappa was the chief minister, Venkaiahji and Ananth Kumar were there as senior leaders. Whatever discussion happened, happened among them. I had nothing to do with it. Rather, I was opposed to three members of the same family being made ministers. But they had some political compulsions,” Swaraj said in the interview.

The Leader of the Opposition is clearly not going to suffer in silence as yet another round of what she describes as a “disinformation campaign” is set in motion. The BJP has scheduled a meeting of its national executive next month in Goa where the Karnataka loss will certainly be a point of discussion. The Gloves are clearly off for yet another round of infighting in the principal opposition party. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013