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Why dissent in party does not ruffle Modi

Khaleej Times 2018-07-12 00:23:11

There are reported murmurs of dissent at the higher reaches of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Articles by veteran journalists list veteran BJP members as disgruntled: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and former party chief Murli Manohar Joshi. They are apparently unhappy with their marginalisation and periodic public slightings by the power duarchy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah. Somehow their rumblings are supposed to gather momentum into something bigger by the 2019 parliamentary election, when dissent against Modi will deny him a second term if, as expected, the BJP returns with less than a majority but remains the single largest party.

Such thinking is hogwash, for these leaders are spineless. In Modi's four years as the prime minister, neither Joshi nor former deputy prime minsuter LK Advani have raised the banner of revolt, even mildly. Advani has the gravitas to assert himself since he is the Bhishma Pitamah (the all-wise grandfather in the Hindu epic Mahabharata) of the NDA-2 government: he masterminded the Ram temple movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, till the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya; and when former prime minster AB Vajpayee wanted Modi to step down as Gujarat chief minister after the three-day riots in 2002, Advani insisted that Modi be left alone. Had Modi adhered to Vajpayee's rajdharma (duty of the rulers) and stepped down, he would not have had the platform 11 years later to be the party's PM candidate. Advani saved Modi's career. In return, Advani and Joshi were consigned to a notional retirement home, the Margdarshak Mandal, an advisory panel to counsel a PM who accepts zero advice.

One reason these elders can't be effective dissenters is because Joshi and Advani dislike each other. Following Advani's success as party chief during the height of the Ram temple movement, Joshi as Advani's successor had his moment of glory leading an Ekta Yatra (unity trek) from the southern tip of India at Kanyakumari to the insurgency-ridden northern state of Kashmir, to hoist the national flag in Lal Chowk despite the threat by terrorists etc.

Ironically, the Yatra organiser (and fellow flag hositer) was general-ecretary Narendra Modi. Joshi naturally sees himself as Modi's senior, and was upset in May 2014 when the party chose his protégé to be PM. Joshi felt it was his turn after Advani's failed attempt in 2009 (when he lost to Dr Manmohan Singh). Yet Joshi has been unable to make common cause with Advani to force Modi to even accomodate him in government.

Hence much is made of Joshi's eight-page article in an obscure magazine, where he has echoed Vajpayee's mantra of rajdharma: "Freedom of expression and participation in frank discussion on important matters related to the state by the people was treated as basic for righteous governance by the king." This and similar comments are directed at Modi, who not only sees himself as a modern king but does not hide his disdain for consultations and consensus.

Consider the latest discard from Modi's path to the next election: former finance minister Arun Jaitley, who started in May 2014 as a seemingly dependable ministerial colleague of Modi's, but along the way lost favour with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Indian right-wing. Soon after the November 2016 demonetisation, Modi and Shah marginalised Jaitley from any political decision-making, and the latter's kidney transplant this year gave them the opportuniy to hand over his finance ministry to Piyush Goel.

There he will no doubt join Sushma Swaraj, who was viciously trolled by BJP supporters for her ministry's administrative action against a Lucknow passport officer. Modi did not defend her. Instead, on social media day.

The less said about Rajnath Singh, the better. He went to Kashmir in May to begin a grand peace process, but was blindsided by his party's decision in June to pull out of the state government. He kept quiet. As NDA-1 minister Arun Shourie said, Rajnath is not a majboot rajput (strong soldier), but a majboor rajput (helpless soldier).

These dissidents are impotent against Modi. They're cowardly and command no respect in their own party. More importantly, Modi has clearly changed the rules of the game within the party: parliamentary mastery or administrative acumen, attributes Modi himself lacks, no longer matter to rise. The only way up is by disruption, disruption, disruption. Nice guys finish last, even within the party.

Aditya Sinha is an author and senior journalist based in India