As Shah replaces Advani in Gandhinagar, how RSS engineered BJP’s generational shift

RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat enabled Modi's rise to power MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO
21 April, 2019

On 23 April, the Gandhinagar constituency in Gujarat will vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart LK Advani has held the seat since 1998, winning five consecutive elections. But this year, the 91-year-old leader will not contest elections—in his stead, Amit Shah, the BJP national president, will stand from Gandhinagar in his first Lok Sabha elections. The end of Advani’s electoral career is in many ways a culmination of a journey that began in 2013—with the BJP’s old guard having to make way for younger leaders like Narendra Modi.

In 2013, Modi’s elevation as the face and leader of the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha campaign generated considerable controversy, with a section of the party’s leadership threatening to block his potential prime ministerial candidacy and even come out in open rebellion. Advani was among the leaders who expressed dissatisfaction with the path paved for Modi’s emergence. Through its nominees in the BJP’s national leadership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh diffused the tension, quelled the rebellion and effectively accelerated the demise of LK Advani’s political career. In the following extract from “Stratagems and Spoils,” our July 2013 cover story, Poornima Joshi argues that the RSS enabled Modi’s rise to power. She traced the RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s efforts to engineer a generational shift within the BJP and strengthen the Sangh’s control over its political progeny.

The rumblings began just before the storm, and the wise men predicted its arrival with uncanny precision.

In the first week of June 2013, a few days before the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting in Goa, the former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi placed an urgent phone call to Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi, the second-in-command at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. At the upcoming meeting in Goa, the party planned to announce that the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, would be elevated to chair the party’s campaign committee. The purpose of Joshi’s call was to warn the RSS leader of the chaos that would ensue. “Aap baat keejiye Advaniji se. Jo ho raha hai theek nahin hai. Tamasha ho jayega”—Talk to Advani. What is happening is not good. There will be a public spectacle, Joshi said.

Only a few days earlier, the party patriarch LK Advani, whose opposition to Modi’s further ascension was hardly a secret, had demonstrated that he was willing to make his displeasure widely known. In a speech to BJP workers in Madhya Pradesh that would turn up in every newspaper the following day, Advani declared that the state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, had compiled a development record more impressive than Modi’s. Furthermore, Advani added, Chouhan had done so while remaining “humble” and “far from arrogance,” like the party’s revered former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Advani’s message was not hard to decode, and BJP stalwarts like Joshi, as well as the RSS leadership, saw that it did not bode well for a Modi coronation in Goa.

Bhaiyyaji was appropriately alarmed by Joshi’s exclamations, and he promised that he would rush to Delhi to broker peace—and stall Modi’s anointment, if that was what it took to prevent a crisis. He arrived in the capital early in the morning on 7 June—but by that point, the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, had already sensed that forces were aligning in a last-ditch effort to prevent Modi’s appointment.

Advani believed that naming Modi campaign chief was tantamount to projecting him as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, a move he feared would split the BJP from its biggest ally, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). Singh was well aware of Advani’s position: the party’s top leaders had been debating the decision for months leading up to the Goa conclave, and Advani had warned the BJP president that there would be “adverse” consequences.

“Put a rider,” Advani told Singh. “Clarify that this is not an automatic precursor to his projection as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.” Advani also insisted that the party should appoint two campaign committees: one for the general election, which Modi could head, and another for the assembly polls taking place in five states that December, which he proposed former BJP president Nitin Gadkari would chair.

Advani’s push for Gadkari as a counterweight to Modi was a minor detail, but it nicely illuminated the multiplying intrigues and rapidly shifting allegiances in the BJP’s game of thrones. Although he had championed the effort to forcefully eject Gadkari from the president’s chair the year before—over the fervent objections of the RSS—Advani was later convinced that Gadkari had been the victim of a conspiracy to tarnish him with an orchestrated campaign of planted stories in the media. Inside the BJP, suspicions pointed to Arun Jaitley, the Rajya Sabha opposition leader, who is known within the party as “bureau chief” for the extraordinary influence he wields at two large-selling national dailies where his favourite journalists run political bureaus. Although nobody knew whether Jaitley was actually responsible for the stories, most people in the BJP, including Advani, believed that he was. Jaitley and Advani, who were once seen as pupil and teacher, had been in enemy camps since December 2012, when Advani put forth his acolyte Sushma Swaraj, the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha and Jaitley’s bête noire, as a nominee to replace Gadkari as president.

Advani now believed that Gadkari was mistreated, and should therefore be compensated. But Advani’s advocacy also had an ulterior motive: going to bat for the former party president was a way to score points with the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who was very close to Gadkari, his fellow Nagpur Brahmin.

After Murli Manohar Joshi’s phone call, it was agreed that Bhaiyyaji would meet Singh, Advani and others in Delhi to assess the mood in the party toward Modi’s promotion. But before Bhaiyyaji landed, Singh had already scooted out of town: he left for Goa early in the morning on 7 June, one day ahead of the start of the national executive meeting. Before the dissenters—including Advani, Joshi and Swaraj—could capitalise on any remaining hesitation within the RSS over Modi’s promotion, Singh signalled definitively that his loyalty lay with the Gujarat chief minister. “Modiji is the most popular leader in the BJP,” Singh told me when we met in Delhi a few days prior to the Goa conclave. “He is a victim of the media’s hate campaign, but people see the merit in him.”

By helping to ensure that Modi’s elevation was announced at the Goa conclave, Singh had in one stroke aligned himself firmly with the triumvirate that was calling the shots in the BJP: Bhagwat, Modi and the RSS joint general secretary Suresh Soni, who was the Sangh’s liaison to the BJP. They were joined by Ram Lal, the BJP’s organisation secretary—the RSS’s top nominee inside the party—as well as Jaitley, who harboured his own ambitions for the top job, but had decided to cast his lot with Modi.

Several of the dissidents, of course, had their own sights on the PM’s chair; others were understandably wary of Modi’s tendency to eclipse and marginalise any and all rivals to his authority. But they were united by their belief that projecting Modi as the party’s candidate was a needless risk—a move that would drive away allies and turn a safe victory over the hapless Congress into a high-stakes gamble. One senior BJP leader, a former cabinet minister, told me he had pleaded with Singh to delay the decision. “I asked him why he was pushing it—what was the hurry?” the former minister said. “He kept saying, ‘There is a lot of pressure, it cannot be stalled anymore.’ It was ridiculous, really. I told him he is the president of the party. No one could have done anything to him. He can’t be removed from his post, can he?”

After the public spectacle of Advani’s noisy refusal to attend the Goa meeting, and the BJP’s subsequent split with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U)—which ended the 17-year alliance between the two parties—the dissidents claimed some vindication. “There can be no doubt that this gang of four”—a reference to Singh, Modi, Jaitley and Soni—“have precipitated a disaster,” the former minister told me. “The JD(U) has left us, and Advani has openly expressed his reservations.”

Though the BJP president had been lavish in his public praise of Modi, his response to the Advani faction would be to insist that the choice was not his to make: the inevitable could not have been postponed. “Did you witness the slogans and the enthusiasm among the delegates?” one of Singh’s allies told me. “There would have been a revolt if we hadn’t made an announcement.” Even apart from the clamour for Modi from the rank and file, senior leaders at the meeting were certain that Modi himself would precipitate a crisis of even bigger proportions than Advani if he did not leave Goa without at least some prize in his pocket.

For several awkward days, the party looked to be torn in half: on one side, a sulking Advani, a grim Swaraj, and a vociferous Murli Manohar Joshi; on the other, the victorious caucus of Singh, Jaitley, Modi and Lal. While Swaraj made a display of her reservations by arriving late for the office-bearers’ meeting a day before the national executive began—a delay explained by people close to Swaraj as “situational”—Jaitley went all out to signal his commitment to Modi. “Jaitley said that we should announce Modi’s name as our PM candidate,” the former cabinet minister said. “Of course, he did it knowing fully well it could not be done immediately. As it is, Advani’s absence had given enough reason to Rajnathji to even avoid making the announcement regarding the campaign committee.”

While Modi and his allies—especially Singh—celebrated his appointment with the pomp of an election victory, with Modi delivering an Obama-style acceptance speech, the absence of Advani and Swaraj at the podium was glaring. Though the Modi camp, never short of confidence, would brush aside the media’s prurient interest in the BJP’s squabbling, it quickly became clear that the reverberations of Advani’s protest had spoiled the headlines.

On 10 June, two days after the Goa conclave, Advani dashed off a terse letter to the BJP president, resigning from his positions on the party’s parliamentary board, election committee and national executive. It was around this point that the RSS realised that Joshi’s prediction had come true: Modi had successfully been projected as the party’s new leader, but Advani was demonstrating his ability to loudly disrupt proceedings. Nobody wanted to see what new public attacks he might launch against Modi.

That same day, as the queue of supporters outside Advani’s Prithviraj Road home grew longer, Mohan Bhagwat reckoned that something had to be done. Inside, a tearful Swaraj was pleading with Advani to withdraw his resignation, according to a party member who was present. “You did not even tell me,” Swaraj said. “We were all with you, Advaniji.” Rajnath Singh had left Delhi for Rajasthan, where he told reporters that there was “no demand to rescind the decision” to appoint Modi. But back at Advani’s house, a succession of visitors—including Gadkari, the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, and the former BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu—had come, one by one, to broker some sort of peace. Finally, Gadkari called Bhagwat, who then spoke to Advani.

It is important to note at this point that while Advani had resigned from three of his posts, he had not offered to vacate the most important one, that of chairman of the BJP’s parliamentary party—a position that was specially created for him by amending the party constitution in 2009. His apparent intention to continue in this post was an indication, for both Singh and the RSS, that Advani was not really serious about quitting the party; he was using pressure tactics, and would happily withdraw his resignation if they appeared to acquiesce to at least some of his demands.

Bhagwat therefore suggested he would come to meet Advani in Delhi, and urged him to calm down. (The Advani camp claimed that the RSS sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader, further “promised Advaniji that the BJP’s PM candidate will not be decided without his concurrence.”) Bhagwat and Advani made a tentative peace and, following a hastily convened meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body, its 12-member parliamentary board, a unanimous resolution was passed rejecting Advani’s resignation. Advani assented, still hoping that Bhagwat would concede to his wishes for a second election committee, and promise not to formally project a PM candidate without his consent.

On the morning of 20 June, Advani went to the RSS’s Delhi offices in Jhandewalan for the promised meeting with Bhagwat. According to an RSS source privy to the details of the discussion, the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was largely devoted to Advani’s complaints: the unacceptability of Modi as PM candidate, and the total disregard shown by Rajnath Singh to Advani’s cautionary advice about elevating Modi in Goa. Advani also pushed for he and Bhagwat to make the selection of the PM candidate—a decision in which he would like Singh, Jaitley and Soni to have as little influence as possible.

But what happened afterwards demonstrated that there were limits to how far the RSS would go to keep Advani in good humour. A brief statement issued by an RSS spokesperson after the meeting suggested little more would be done to pacify Advani: it gave no assurances about Advani’s concerns and established that the RSS would maintain its authority over the decision-making process in the BJP. Later that day, when a Mail Today reporter asked Naidu who the PM candidate would be, his response was blunt: “You all know who that candidate is.” In the same breath, Naidu cited a newly released Headlines Today poll to make his meaning even clearer. “According to the survey,” Naidu said, “63 percent people in Bihar believe Modi will make a better PM as opposed to 24 percent for Nitish. And these are the results when Modi hasn’t even begun campaigning there.”

June 2013 was a tumultuous month for the BJP, but the end result was clear enough: Modi would lead the party into the next elections with the staunch backing of the RSS. Modi’s elevation may have precipitated a highly visible, political crisis within the BJP—for which Rajnath Singh was blamed—but even after Advani’s protest, the decision that sparked the uproar was not revoked.

While the Advani camp was busy theorising about a “compromise formula” with the RSS, Bhagwat was quick to clarify that Modi was his final choice. At an RSS function in Meerut on 18 June, one day after the JD(U) divorce, Bhagwat made a veiled reference to the “secularist” objections Advani and Kumar had put forth against Modi—the only national leader in the BJP who could be considered an icon of hard Hindutva in the same way Advani once was. “Whether somebody likes it or not,” Bhagwat said, “Hindutva is the only way to bring about change in the country. It is where the country’s respect lies.”

The sarsanghchalak had been voicing these sentiments for some time, and according to RSS sources, Bhagwat’s message for the BJP was simple: what wins votes for the party is Hindutva and the “emotional issues” associated with it. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a mirage,” an RSS leader told me. “It was the Ram Janmabhoomi, uniform civil code and abrogation of Article 370 that got us the votes in the 1990s.” In Modi, the party had a leader who already represented Hindutva, but with a new sheen of good governance and economic growth. “The idiom of Hindutva has now changed from Ram Janmabhoomi to Gujarat Shining and development, coupled with aspirations for a strong state, a stronger stance against Pakistan and China and zero tolerance towards terrorism. Secularists may moan against what was done to Sohrabuddin, but there is a strong popular message that terrorists and anti-social elements will not be tolerated,” the RSS leader said. “So far as Advaniji is concerned, he should know that his days are over.”

The RSS was convinced that the BJP needed the services of the Gujarat chief minister, who would excite the cadre and consolidate the party’s core vote. Against a wobbly and dithering Congress-led government, a strong leader with impeccable Hindutva credentials and a much-touted governance record seemed to be a winnable alternative. The strongest promoters of this line within the RSS were Bhagwat himself, along with senior leaders such as Suresh Soni and Ram Lal. Further behind-the-scenes support for Modi within the BJP came from a trio—consisting of the Rajya Sabha member Balbir Punj; the BJP general secretary, Muralidhar Rao; and S Gurumurthy, a free agent who wielded considerable influence in the RSS—who often served as interlocutors between the pro- and anti-Modi factions.

Indeed, one development that became visible during the process that catapulted Modi to top billing among the BJP’s so-called “Gen Next”—all of whose members were over 60 years old—was that the RSS had asserted its undisputed authority over the party. Sensing that its political progeny had come of age, the mother outfit set aside the two midwives who brought it to life: Vajpayee, who had already left the scene years ago for health reasons, and Advani, who was now being humoured as he faded into political extinction. It was Advani who represented the last serious challenge to the abrasive Bhagwat exercising full control over the BJP through his handymen Gadkari and Singh. Now the RSS chief was busy setting in motion processes to accelerate Advani’s political demise and the rise of a new generation in the BJP.

Advani had long been a favourite of the RSS, at least until his ill-fated decision to praise Mohammed Ali Jinnah on a visit to Pakistan in 2005. Even after this, the RSS—always a very pragmatic outfit—still assented to Advani’s projection as the PM candidate in 2009, just as they had once agreed to Vajpayee’s leadership in spite of their initial objections. But Advani could never truly repair his rift with the RSS, and senior leaders like Bhagwat had long since decided that a generational transition in the BJP was an absolute necessity. That had, in fact, been clear since the party’s shocking defeat in 2004, but no single leader had yet emerged to supplant Advani. After the bumbling experiment in “collective leadership” over the past four years, the RSS was convinced that a single strong leader would be needed, and in the last 12 months, Modi had clearly emerged as their choice. Bhagwat, meanwhile, was not shy about signalling the Sangh’s dominant role in steering the transition.

Consider the statement issued by the RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya after Advani visited Bhagwat on 20 June, which provided ample evidence of how deeply the RSS had become involved in the day-to-day functioning of the BJP: “In a detailed and candid interaction, Shri Advaniji conveyed his views on various developments in the country and the role of the party and the broad nationalist movement led by the Sangh. It was opined that several issues need further discussion and exchange of notes at various levels. Same will take place at appropriate time. Shri Bhagwatji also suggested that such useful exchange of views should continue in future also.” The talk of “exchange of notes at various levels” was a significant admission from the RSS, which had spent years insisting that it had no say in how the BJP conducts its business.

Indeed, the RSS, which always refrained from openly admitting its command over the BJP, became much more vocal about the nature of its relationship with the party since Bhagwat took over in 2009. He was the first RSS chief to state publicly that the Sangh had a hand in selecting the BJP’s president, a fact he mentioned in a television interview not long before he handpicked Gadkari for the role. Now it seemed Bhagwat, who described Modi as “a good man and a good friend,” had picked the Gujarat chief minister for PM.

Bhagwat’s close relationship with Modi is underscored by a connection between the two men that was described by the academic Nikita Sud in her 2012 book Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and the State: A Biography of Gujarat. Sud wrote that the Gujarat chief minister was an ardent follower of Bhagwat’s father, Madhukar, the first RSS member deputed to Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat in 1940 to establish the Sangh in the state. In April 2009, only two weeks after Mohan Bhagwat was selected as sarsanghchalak, Modi paid public tribute to Madhukar Bhagwat at an event in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, the elder Bhagwat’s birthplace, calling him a pillar of the RSS who had been a great influence on the Gujarat chief minister during his days as a young pracharak—ideologue.

The elder Bhagwat was a committed swayamsevak who helped build a strong foundation for the Sangh in Gujarat, a state characterised by the absence of progressive movements and the heavy presence of revivalist currents, such as the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha. Though it was then politically dormant, the RSS in Gujarat grew into a potent cultural force, shaping public discourse and popularising the writings of VD Savarkar, Dayanand Saraswati, and KM Munshi. It was Munshi who, as a minister in Nehru’s cabinet, laid the groundwork for the future Ram Janmabhoomi movement through his campaign for the “resurrection” of Gujarati and Indian pride by rebuilding the Somnath temple, which had been destroyed by Muslim invaders a thousand years earlier. (He was helped in this venture by another Gujarati cabinet minister, Vallabhbhai Patel.)

As chief minister, Modi capitalised on, and further polished, Gujarat’s unique brand of Hindutva, which provided the foundation for the BJP’s political dominance in the state—and the shared memory of the specific context in which the movement first flourished there cemented the bond between Modi and Bhagwat. Their close relationship, along with Modi’s own background in the RSS, helped insulate him against the fierce criticism he faced from the state units of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS farmers’ front; it also diminished the fallout from Modi’s vicious campaign against Sanjay Joshi, an RSS full-timer who was a powerful BJP general secretary before Modi hounded him out.

Any lingering questions about what some in the Sangh regarded as Modi’s excessive “individualism” were settled, according to RSS sources, during an important meeting in Nagpur on 21 October 2012, in which Modi gave “an assurance of his continued allegiance to the RSS.” Modi held discussions with Bhagwat, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Suresh Soni, and others. “This was a meeting in which a promise was extracted from him,” an RSS leader told me. It is not clear what that promise was, but whatever Modi said reassured the RSS of his good intentions, and not long thereafter, he proved his mettle once again by winning his third election in Gujarat. The RSS was now convinced that without him, the BJP would flounder, and likely lose its organisational support base and ideological distinction. “They are looking at the larger picture,” the RSS leader said. “The BJP has no leader at the top with a mass base or ideological leaning. It is important that the centre holds and for that to happen, Modi is needed.”

Even as the RSS promoted Modi as the face of the BJP, the organisation took steps to ensure its presence was increased at every level within the party, inserting several amendments in the party constitution over the previous five years to create more posts for its nominees. The BJP’s national organisation secretary, Ram Lal, a direct RSS nominee, now had two joint general secretaries, both RSS nominees, serving under him. In addition to Lal, the Sangh also had another representative among the party’s general secretaries, the former Swadesh Jagran Manch functionary Muralidhar Rao. The BJP had begun to appoint zonal organisation secretaries, as the RSS has long done, and the unspoken assumption was that these posts, too, would be filled by RSS men.

What Modi would do at the head of the party still remained to be seen. But for the moment, he was certain to go along with the wishes of the RSS—which meant avoiding further clashes with other top BJP leaders, paying obeisance to the Sangh and ceasing any conflict with his old antagonists, such as Pravin Togadia and Sanjay Joshi—because it suited him to have the RSS completely on his side as he fought his way to the top of the BJP.

This is an extract from “Stratagems and Spoils,” our July 2013 cover story. It has been edited and condensed.