A larger picture has just begun to unfold in the BJP

A larger picture has just begun to unfold in the BJP

Total control

Amit Shah

One of the differences between the ‘High Command’ in the BJP and the ‘High Command’ in the Congress is this: the Congress used to go through the motions of “authorizing” the Congress president to take decisions, like who would be the chief minister of a state. This authorization is not needed in the ‘new BJP’.

Party president Amit Shah is the supremo today, and he calls the shots. No one challenges him, nor is anyone in a position to do so. His clout stems not just from being the No. 2 to Narendra Modi, given the  resounding mandate he won for the second time, but it also comes from his own success—and effort--in building a formidable organization in the last five years that has ousted other parties in state after state, leaving the Congress limping without direction.

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‘High Command’ comes to BJP

Indeed, there is every indication that Amit Shah not only continues to exercise his grip over the party but he is also running the government for all practical purposes, even as Modi has chosen to play the “statesman” and strike high notes on the world stage, in ‘Man ki Baat’ and educate people on the larger issues of popular and global concern.

Given the strengthening of Modi and Shah and the BJP under their leadership, the ‘High Command’ culture is now a given in the way the ‘new BJP’ functions. This had become apparent even in 2014. Now, it’s a striking feature. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent developments in Karnataka.

The BJP in Karnataka has for long revolved around the fortunes of B S Yediyurappa, who even changed the way he spelt his name to change his fortunes! The 2019 Lok Sabha victory of the BJP was all about people choosing the country’s next prime minister and they clearly favoured Narendra Modi, but its resounding success in Karnataka also had something to do with the solid way the Lingayat community consolidated behind Yediyurappa. Thanks to his influence, even in 2009, the BJP had notched up 19 LS seats. This was before Modi arrived on the national stage. During the Modi 2014 tsunami, the party got three seats less – 16 – in Karnataka.

Today, the BJP ‘High Command’ has left few in doubt that it has its own plans for Karnataka. Yediyurappa has taken over as CM, and the informal age bar of 75 years to hold elective offices was waived for him, but he was neither allowed to choose the time of his swearing-in nor did he have much say in deciding his cabinet. The list of 17 ministers to be sworn in came straight from Delhi,  and many of those close to the CM found themselves out. Instead, the list included an unprecedented three deputy CMs, when Yediyurappa did not want even one.

The elevation of Govind Karjol, an SC leader from North Karnataka, which voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, and of Ashwath Narayan, a Vokkaliga, a community the BJP would like to wean away from the Janata Dal(S), may make sense. What did not make sense was to make a comparative lightweight Laxman Savadi, infamous for being caught watching porn in the Assembly, the third deputy CM. Except that he is a Lingayat, and the BJP brass may want to build an alternative Lingayat leader to  Yediyurappa.

The three were elevated at the expense of senior leaders, some of whom had been deputy CMs in the past, like R Ashoka and Eshwarappa. The old guard is smarting, but the High Command’s “take it or leave it” message was unambiguous. It knows what it is doing.

The Modi-Shah duo is clear about grooming its own team and putting it in place, in Karnataka and everywhere else. And what better moment to strike than when they are riding high and have a total grip over the party.

In 2014, they were able to put the “over 75s”, like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, into a Margdarshak Mandal that never met. In 2019, these veterans did not even contest elections. The ‘Gen X’ leadership of the  Vajpayee-Advani era are all dead – starting with Pramod Mahajan’s death in 2006, and more recently of Anant Kumar, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.

Left with no friends in Delhi and little room to manoeuvre, will Yediyurappa just accept to be a figurehead while Delhi calls the shots, big and small, or will he decide to quit? Is the ‘High Command’ creating conditions that will compel him to throw in the towel, so that they can enthrone one of “their own”? Does Yediyurappa have the energy and the wherewithal to mount a challenge to the Modi-Shah duo—as he did in 2013--were he to come out of the government and party? Given Modi’s continuing popularity, could it lead to a realignment of political forces in the state, given that it was the rebellion by Siddarmaiah’s boys that started the process that ended with Yediyurappa being crowned CM again? These are questions that are being asked.

Modi and Shah are not just creating their own team, completely loyal to them, they are also moving to a plan to fulfil their core agenda, and they are in a hurry to do so. They moved swiftly to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, going a step further in converting the state into two Union Territories. Many believe that the enactment of a Uniform Civil Code (the triple talaq law was one step in that direction) may not be far away. Or, the construction of a Mandir in Ayodhya.

Even if the Supreme Court, which is holding daily hearings on Ayodhya, does not give a clear verdict, what is to stop the government from taking the legislative route to build the temple? After all, it undid the special status of J&K with two-thirds support in both Houses of Parliament. Given the mood in the country, the Opposition parties will find it difficult to oppose such a move. The onset of a ‘High Command’ culture in the BJP is part of a larger picture that has now begun to unfold.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and political commentator)