Modi, Modi, Modi: How BJP became a one-man show

Smita Gupta | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Pecking order: Narendra Modi’s (far right) 2014 win effected a generational change in the BJP. Founders Atal Bihari Vajpayee (second from right) and LK Advani (second from left) were relegated to being margdarshaks. The deaths of younger leaders such as Pramod Mahajan (far left) wiped out the second generation   -  VIVEK BENDRE

The steady depletion in the ranks of the BJP’s second generation has made Narendra Modi the indisputable leader of the party, and Amit Shah the trusted deputy

Narendra Modi became the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s indisputable leader after he led it to a spectacular victory in the general elections of 2014. With that win, a generational change was effected in the party even as its founders — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and some others — were moved out of the decision-making process into the Margdarshak Mandal, the first step to political oblivion. Now with the recent deaths of Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, possibly the two favourites of former party president Advani, the BJP’s second generation has virtually been wiped out. Most leaders have either died or become politically irrelevant.

The depletion in the ranks of the BJP’s second generation is a loss to the 39-year-old organisation. But Jaitley’s death, in particular, is not just a personal loss for the prime minister — it might also prove to be a handicap in his second tenure in office.

In Modi’s first tenure as prime minister, it was commonly believed that his two greatest assets were Amit Shah — then party president, now Union home minister as well — and Jaitley. If Shah’s skills at micromanaging and winning elections are widely acknowledged, Jaitley’s wide range of contacts in Delhi’s power and social elite eased Modi’s way through the labyrinthine lanes of Lutyens’s Delhi. The goodwill that Jaitley had earned over the years, and his dexterity in communication, helped Modi sell his Hindutva agenda to middle-class India.

Over the last two decades, Jaitley actively promoted Modi’s rise to the top, starting with his defence of the then Gujarat chief minister during the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in the state. A year later, on the eve of the BJP’s national executive meeting in Goa, to which Prime Minister Vajpayee had come determined to sack Modi, Jaitley played an active role in saving his job. And when crunch time came, ahead of the general elections in 2014, he backed Modi for the prime minister’s job, dumping his political guru, Advani. Through the years, Jaitley provided important political and legal advice not just to advance the party’s cause, but to Modi personally — and even to Shah.

During Modi’s first term as prime minister, Jaitley held the key portfolios of defence and finance, and managed to push through the controversial Goods and Services Tax Act. Even as illness forced him to remain in seclusion, he continued to play a critical behind-the-scenes role in the passage of the Triple Talaq Bill, and the government could not have done without his legal advice on how to make Article 370 — that granted special status to Jammu & Kashmir — inoperative.

The second generation

A statement attributed to the then powerful and influential organisational general secretary KN Govindacharya — that Vajpayee was the BJP’s mukhouta or mask, while Advani was its real face — by a British diplomat saw his exit from the party in 2000. Govindacharya not only played a key role in the formation of VP Singh’s National Front government in 1989 (when the BJP won 80 Lok Sabha seats for the first time, up from the two it had managed in 1984), he also introduced the phrase “social engineering” to the party, underscoring the importance of accommodating Other Backward Castes in the BJP’s fold.

In 2006, Pramod Mahajan, another general secretary who was also a Cabinet minister in Vajpayee’s government, was killed by his own brother. This was a huge loss as he was seen as the party’s future prime ministerial candidate. Mahajan was the one who forged an alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra that continues to bring dividends to the party. As a Central minister, his cross-party friendships helped the BJP negotiate its way in Parliament, especially when Vajpayee was prime minister between 1998 and 2004. As one of the party’s principal political strategists he oversaw the BJP victory in Rajasthan in 2003. He had a clear understanding of politics, an excellent equation with the media and was a major fundraiser. He also started modernising the functioning of the party.

In 2014, his brother-in-law, Gopinath Munde, died in a car crash within days of being inducted into the Union Cabinet. In 2018, Ananth Kumar, who had played a stellar role in building the BJP in Karnataka and was a three-time Union Cabinet minister, died of cancer. In 2019, former Union defence minister and ex-Chief Minister of Goa Manohar Parrikar, too, died of cancer. This was followed in August by the deaths of Swaraj and Jaitley. As Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha in 2009-2014, Swaraj had effectively challenged the then ruling Congress, while Jaitley did so in the Rajya Sabha.

Another second-generation leader who was key in the rise of Modi but is today on the political margins is M Venkaiah Naidu, Vice President of India since 2017. With Jaitley, he had assisted Modi in his political career in Gujarat. They backed him despite Vajpayee’s disapproval when Modi took up cudgels against Shankarsinh Vaghela who eventually left the party for the Congress. The death of Mahajan saw the three consolidating their positions in the party. If Naidu was party general secretary between 1993 and 2000 and president in 2002-04, Modi was general secretary between 1998 and 2001 when he became Gujarat chief minister. Jaitley was general secretary between 2002 and 2009.

If Modi remained intent on his own rise, Jaitley and Naidu, like Advani, did seek to mentor some of their juniors. There are two versions in the party on why Naidu was moved out of active politics. Some believe that Modi needed a trusted lieutenant to manage the Rajya Sabha that was proving hard to manage as the BJP was in a minority there. The less charitable view is that he had outlived his utility.

Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and Ravi Shankar Prasad are the remaining major figures from the second generation but, party insiders say, the fact that their jobs have been eclipsed by Shah’s second-in-command position suggests that this is as far as they will go.

After Modi, the man to look out for will be Shah.

Smita Gupta is senior fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

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Published on September 06, 2019
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