The new New Delhi: Government talks begin, pressure on Rajnath Singh to join

Security personnel escort Modi's vehicle on his arrival at IGI Airport in New Delhi on Saturday. Ravi Kanojia Security personnel escort Modi's vehicle on his arrival at IGI Airport in New Delhi on Saturday. Ravi Kanojia

Setting May 20 as the date for Narendra Modi’s formal election as the leader of the BJP Parliamentary Party — ahead of taking oath as the nation’s 16th Prime Minister — the BJP Parliamentary Board, the highest decision-making body of the party chaired by its chief Rajnath Singh, met here on Saturday, setting into motion the process of government formation.

Away from the cameras that captured the top brass of the party — including Modi, L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — exchanging greetings, one of the first issues on the table, sources said, was that of Rajnath Singh’s role in the new dispensation.

Sources said Rajnath is being persuaded to join the Modi government despite his public statement — many times during the campaign — that he would like to stay party chief until his tenure ends in December 2015. Sources suggested the two had had an opportunity to discuss this issue on their way to and from Varanasi on Saturday. The two leaders were accompanied by party general secretary Amit Shah.

Party leaders suggested that the unprecedented scale of the BJP’s — read Modi’s — victory has silenced his critics for now, and diminished any leverage Advani, Joshi and Swaraj could have had in the new government. It is also expected to test the Modi-Rajnath relationship that has emerged as the crucial one in the post-Vajpayee-Advani era. In fact, many leaders are keenly watching how this relationship — between the party and the government — evolves.

This relationship has a chequered record. Rajnath had to face flak from party elders last year when he went ahead with the RSS project to isolate Advani in the party and anoint Modi as the PM candidate. While he faced the wrath of seniors like Sushma and Joshi in private, Advani went public in his attack when Rajnath announced Modi as BJP’s chief campaigner at the party’s national executive in Goa last June.

Advani not only stayed away from the executive — he had not skipped any such meeting since his Jana Sangh days — to mount pressure on Rajnath but later quit in protest.

“For some time I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going. I no longer have the feeling that this is the same idealistic party created by Dr Mookerji, Pandit Deendayalji, Nanaji and Vajpayeeji whose sole concern was the country and its people. Most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas,” Advani wrote in his resignation letter on June 10 last year, a direct attack on Rajnath.

Undeterred, however, Rajnath put up a brave face as Modi watched from Gandhinagar. Modi, for the record, spoke to Advani over the phone and later tweeted his appeal that Advani should withdraw his resignation. Incidentally, Modi did not come out in defence of Rajnath and it was left to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to step in and defuse the crisis.

Rajnath was back in Advani’s line of fire when he nominated Modi as PM candidate despite objections from Advani, Joshi and Swaraj. He also drew flak from Sushma for allowing the entry of BS Sriramulu into the party in Karnataka apparently at the behest of Modi’s electoral calculus. Swaraj had gone public expressing her disapproval but Rajnath didn’t react.

Party sources said that Modi and the RSS are weighing their options as they face two questions: can Rajnath’s presence in the organisation create another power centre outside the government? And, if he is in the government, will the absence of a political heavyweight as party president weaken the organisation?

Meanwhile, applauding the “inspirational and visionary leadership” of Modi, the BJP parliamentary board put on record “its deep sense of appreciation to the tireless effort and leadership provided by Shri Narendra Modi in this campaign.”

The resolution declared that the BJP, despite having a majority on its own, would accommodate its allies in the government and identified the economy as a key focus area.

“The NDA has got an overwhelming mandate to govern. India needs a government which is effectively led, and which can put the country’s economy on a growth track, make it secure and provide a government in accordance with the highest standard of probity,” the resolution read.