Last week, when Congress MPs sought suspension of business in the Rajya Sabha to take up the political developments in Karnataka, senior BJP MPs immediately huddled around J P Nadda’s seat to discuss their tactics on the floor of the House.
Outside the House too, the first stop for BJP strategists like Bhupender Yadav and Anil Jain is Nadda, who operates from a corner of the large office room once occupied by Arun Jaitley and now by the BJP’s current leader in the Rajya Sabha, Thaawar Chand Gehlot.
Nadda’s new role was also reinforced at the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting on July 2, the first after the 17th Lok Sabha was constituted. Unlike in the past when Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh flanked Narendra Modi, Nadda sat on the Prime Minister’s right in the front row.
A month after Nadda took over as the working president of the BJP on June 18, the party is clearly in a post-Amit Shah transition phase. While Shah continues as the president of the BJP, almost every senior leader admits in private that Nadda will take over once the BJP organisational elections are over. Few doubt either that real power will continue to be wielded by Shah and Modi, though, as a senior leader puts it, Nadda won’t be eclipsed, as the party leadership “maintains respect for organisation ethics”.
While a senior office-bearer talks about still going to Shah for “everything”, he adds, “But of course, we first discuss the issues with Nadda.” Another leader says Shah has asked them to discuss regular organisational matters with Nadda and to not involve him — except when it comes to West Bengal, Kerala and Telangana. In case of the three states the BJP is focused on, Shah wants to be kept in the loop.
BJP leaders also mark out the appointments since Nadda was picked, as part of a gradual generational shift and transition of power — contrasting this with the arbitrariness in other parties, especially the Congress. Still, it was Shah who picked the names for presidents of politically crucial Maharashtra, Mumbai Mahanagar and Uttar Pradesh units. Both Chandrakant Dada Patil, the new Maharashtra BJP chief, and Swatantra Dev Singh, who will head the party in UP, have come up through the ranks.
Shah also handpicked former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to head the BJP’s new membership drive, a challenging task given Shah’s feat in 2016 of registering more than 10 crore new members. Alongside, former Union minister Radha Mohan Singh has been given the charge of overseeing the organisational elections.
The most prominent of the appointments is of Bommarabettu Laxmijanardhana Santhosh, a staunch RSS man from Karnataka, as General Secretary (Organisation), one of the most powerful posts in the party. The choice of the replacement for Ramlal, who returned to the RSS after serving the BJP for 13 years, was termed routine. But, it was far from that. Shah again proved speculation wrong and didn’t pick the expected choice, 62-year-old V Satish, the BJP national joint secretary seen as close to both Modi and Shah since his Gujarat days.
“Only those who do not know Amit Shah or the RSS or the BJP were surprised,” says a senior BJP leader. “The RSS does not send someone as its top nominee in the BJP for a short term. It is always for at least a decade. Satish is already 62 years and Ramlalji was 66 when he left the party after 13 years.” Santhosh is 56.
There were other reasons as well. With Nadda considered soft-spoken and mild, the BJP needed someone in the mould of the aggressive and disciplinarian Shah. Says a BJP general secretary, “When Amit Shahji was at the helm of affairs, Ramlalji’s mildness and composure were complementary. But with Naddaji, you need someone of the same temperament as Amit Shah, although no one can match him.”
Adds another leader: “Ramlalji would delay decisions to seek a consensus over issues while Amitji takes decisions quickly. Santhoshji, as far as I know, is like our party president.”
An engineer who joined the RSS after college, Santhosh proved himself in his role as Karnataka organisational general secretary. Under him, the BJP established its base and formed a government in the state — its only one in the south, a region crucial to the BJP’s further growth. Santhosh also held the BJP together when its most popular and influential Lingayat leader, B S Yeddyurappa, quit to launch another party.
As national joint general secretary, Santhosh strategised for the BJP in Kerala too, organising the party’s Sabarimala campaign. “Santhoshji was the brain behind it. He coordinated the BJP and RSS agitation in the state,” says a party functionary.
Santhosh is also tech-savvy, unlike Nadda, a qualification that goes far in the party, which it has used technology to maximum effect in politics.
Still, in the absence of Shah as full-time chief, the Nadda-Santhosh duo will have their task cut out. If south remains a challenge, with the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana only a couple of months away, one of the first talks before Nadda would be managing querulous ally Shiv Sena.
Next would be the Assembly elections in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal, all states where the BJP can’t be too sure of its chances. If West Bengal and Delhi CMs Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are primed for battle, there are signs of discomfort in the BJP-JD(U) alliance in Bihar. The JD(U) has not joined the government at the Centre yet.
With the Modi government raising stakes on Jammu & Kashmir, led by Shah as Home Minister himself, the Nadda-Santhosh team would also have to ensure that this is reflected in the BJP’s poll performance there. Elections could be declared anytime in the state.
In a party ruled with an iron hand under Modi-Shah, all eyes will also be on how the new dispensation fares in the face of its controversial leaders and their inflammatory speeches. In the brief time since the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP has had to warn disciplinary action against a number of party leaders, though it is unclear whether it did go ahead against Pragya Thakur, Anantkumar Hegde and Nalin Kumar Kateel for their Nathuram Godse remarks, or against Madhya Pradesh MLA Akash Vijayvargiya for attacking a municipal corporator. That this is delicate territory was evident when the party expelled Uttarakhand MLA Pranav Singh Champion for six years on Thursday, after a video of him brandishing guns and using abusive language went viral. Party sources said a section of the state unit questioned the quick action when others accused of more serious charges have got away.
Even senior leaders have recently embarrassed the BJP with their outbursts on social media. Organisation joint secretary Shivprakash left many confused when he posted a “Talk with me” message to Uttarakhand BJP chief Ajay Bhatt on Twitter, below the latter’s post announcing action against Champion. Another senior leader, BJP vice-president Prabhat Jha, posted a series of tweets preaching values and principles of leadership.
Many BJP leaders see these voices as linked to Shah’s withdrawal from managing the party’s day-to-day affairs.
Says one MP, “A party with crores of members and hundreds of leaders cannot be expected to be on auto pilot. Only a strong leadership can steer the ship without hitting turbulence.”
As Modi and Shah watch, no one knows that better than Nadda and Santhosh.