CONFLICTS IN THE PARTY WITH A DIFFERENCE

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It is in the nature of Opposition parties to be agitational, to be constantly in campaign mode. The pursuit of power demands it but there is a fine line between keeping the government on its toes by demanding accountability and being churlish. The BJP’s summersaults after the sacking of CVC PJ Thomas are a case in point.

The forced exit of the CVC should have been the BJP’s finest hour. Instead, internal jockeying for a post-Advani age among its top brass has helped shift attention from the Congress’ many failures to the BJP’s Achilles’ heel: the absence of an alpha leader who can shepherd the party’s bickering stalwarts towards a common goal.

Differences at the top are the party’s worst kept secret and the aftermath of the PM’s mea culpa on the CVC judgment has only underscored them further.

Look at what happened. When the Prime Minister accepted full responsibility for persisting with Thomas’ appointment, the BJP’s Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj was first of the blocks with her response. “This is enough,” she tweeted, “let matters rest at this and we move forward.” It was a statesman-like sentiment by any yardstick.

The BJP after all had already won its political victory. It had succeeded in pinning down the government in a clear case of executive over-reach and its stand was vindicated by the Supreme Court. Thomas was out and the PM had already owned up.

Given Swaraj’s pivotal leadership position and her central role in the Thomas affair, this seemed like the final word on this sordid affair.

Politically speaking, whatever way one looks at it, the point had been made and won already.

But within hours, senior BJP leaders were making it known that they did not agree with what they saw as soft-peddling by Swaraj.

Her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitely, signalled a far more combative tone, asking if the PM had been misled or chose to be misled.

Jaitely’s is a legitimate point but it meant that on a day when the front page headlines should have been only about the Congress getting a black eye and the BJP being vindicated, they were instead also devoted to differences surfacing within the BJP.

On the same day, Jaitely penned an opinion piece in the Times of India, questioning the validity of the PM’s ‘Ceaser’s wife’ image. It was a clear signal of intent that Swaraj’s view to let bygones be bygones did not quite enjoy her party’s full support.

With the party’s top two leaders in Parliament speaking in different voices, Nitin Gadkari ultimately had to clear the confusion with a press conference.

Clearly weighing in with the Jaitely hardline and pointedly underscoring that he was speaking in his capacity as party president he announced that the BJP had no intention of letting the CVC issue rest and that it would be at the centre of the party’s nationwide campaign on corruption.

Let’s be clear. It is entirely natural for senior political leaders to have differing takes on an issue and for the BJP to debate whether to take the Swaraj or the Jaitely line.

But when an internal party debate spills out into the open, it makes for a particularly unseemly spectacle.

It is not every day that a party president openly snubs his Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Gadkari has only reinforced the impression of a factional fight within a party that is still struggling to find its centre of gravity in the post-Advani era.

Irrespective of who is right, the turf war has meant that in the hour of its triumph, the BJP suddenly finds itself exposed with old questions opening up again.

Arun Jaitely, of course, has publicly emphasised that there were no differences on substance between him and Sushma Swaraj, only a difference of styles.

But the fact remains that when the BJP should have been pressing home its hard-fought victory over the Congress, it has been left to deal with the public perception of a rift in its top echelons.

Much like the Congress, there is a growing feeling that factional in-party positioning within the BJP is driving external policy decisions, more than anything else.

Once the party’s top ideologue, before he was cast out in the wilderness, KN Govindacharya has a point when he argues that “there is confusion in the party because they don’t know which way to go. There is a tug of war inside.” Govindacharya, of course, doesn’t hold much water in the current BJP dispensation but if anyone knows the party inside out, he does.

Which is why Nitin Gadkari should pay heed. There was a time when the BJP prided itself as the party with a difference.

That claim is part of its history but India cannot afford its primary opposition party to be one of differences.