BJP appeared to be bracing for fresh turmoil in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls after L K Advani expressed disinclination to seek re-election from Gandhinagar in Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat.
Although the central leadership turned down the request and sought to put a lid on the matter by announcing Advani’s candidature from Gandhinagar, the party leadership was keeping its fingers crossed. According to late-night reports, Advani has indicated that he would rather wait for the party central election committee to respond to his request to contest from Bhopal.
Advani’s desire, conveyed to BJP chief Rajnath Singh on Monday, to switch constituencies came as a surprise to the party because of his consistent public stand that he would fight only from Gandhinagar: the constituency which he has won since 1991. He had stated this as recently as on February 28 when the party announced its first list of candidates.
The decision of the central election committee came after day-long drama that seemed to bring to the fore the bitter resistance of a section in BJP to Modi’s leadership. The saffron senior kept away from the deliberations on the ground that his candidature was under discussion even as reports swirled through the day about his reluctance to contest from Gandhinagar.
After the committee’s meeting, senior leaders Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari met Advani to convey the party’s decision. General secretary Thawarchand Gehlot soon announced the decision to signal that the nomination for Gandhinagar, so far as the leadership is concerned, was a closed chapter.
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Yet, there was wariness about what Advani might do, with party circles speculating whether the Madhya Pradesh unit may recommend him for the Bhopal seat.
Amid growing uncertainty, Modi had a meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the Sangh’s Jhandewalan office in the capital. Several assumptions were being put forward in party circles for Advani’s desire to move away from Gandhinagar after having often emphasized his closed links to Gujarat, saying his family had settled there after moving from Karachi and it was home.
Many in the party felt the attempted switch was meant to signal his autonomy of Modi and to emphasize that he could win from any constituency of his choice. With Madhya Pradesh already playing host to Sushma Swaraj, who represents Vidisha and whose equations with Modi are seen as tense, the desire to move to Bhopal was also suspected to be an attempt to raise a parallel axis vis-a-vis the ascendant troika of Modi, party chief Rajnath Singh and leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley.
Party circles have for some time sniffed an effort to set up MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as a counterpoint to Modi. The tussle in the party over Modi’s projection as PM candidate saw Advani suggesting that Chouhan’s performance as CM surpassed Modi’s as Chouhan had turned around Madhya Pradesh which, unlike Gujarat, was a BIMARU state.
Some in the party also saw the move to shift constituency as reflective of Advani camp’s fear that his campaign may be subverted by workers who may look to proactively scuttle any post-poll trouble for Modi. Although Modi camp would have ensured that Advani won comfortably to ward off the charge of sabotage, workers remain apprehensive of the intent of Modi’s opponents in the party.
Fearing that Advani’s shfit to Bhopal could be projected as another instance of senior leaders being humiliated under the Modi-Rajanth dispensation, the official faction had swung into action to dissuade Advani soon after he conveyed his keenness on Bhopal. The Gujarat party recommended just Advani’s name for Gandhinagar on Monday. On Tuesday, former party MP from Gujarat Vijay Rupani publicized the state unit’s insistence that the party veteran stick with Gandhinagar.
Sources close to the leadership saw the sudden change in Advani’s preference as underscoring the tenacity of the resistance that Modi faces from “determined hold-outs”. In recent weeks, Swaraj openly opposed the decision to re-admit Karnataka leader B Sriramulu. She not only tweeted her reservations but followed that up with another tweet after Sriramulu joined the party.
But just as it has firmly overruled the protests of senior leaders like M M Joshi who had to make way for Modi in Varanasi, the ascendant BJP leadership does not seem ready to cater to Advani’s bid to shift to Bhopal.
The meeting of the election committee saw several attendees emphasizing the point that the Gujarat unit had unanimously endorsed him as the candidate for Gandhinagar.
Whether Advani, having “recused” himself from the meeting on the ground that it would be improper for him to participate in the deliberations when his name was under consideration, will insist on having his way despite the decision remains a tricky question.
However, the way the battle of wits ends will be shaped by what stance Chouhan takes, particularly whether Sangh uses its leverage with him to nip any trouble from the Madhya Pradesh unit.