The elections to the president and vice-president are done and dusted. The celebration of 75 years of Independence is almost concluded. Opposition parties are working out permutations and combinations to mount a credible challenge, with fresh enthusiasm following the developments in Bihar. And Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is set to embark on a march across the country, which the party hopes may finally infuse some life into its dispirited ranks.
In this context, and against the backdrop of the Bihar blow to it, come the changes in the BJP top structure. For once, the party that was characteristically ahead of others in sounding the bugle for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, seems off to a somewhat wobbly start.
Officially, the recasting of both the Parliamentary Board (the BJP’s apex decision making body) and Central Election Committee (CEC) — itself coming unannounced – was explained as “honouring of loyal karyakartas”. However, the changes have left a lot of heartburn, with murmurs that have become uncommon under the new BJP ruling dispensation getting louder.
A large section of BJP leaders, including some from the RSS, are seeing the changes, especially the decision to remove Nitin Gadkari and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, as centralisation or consolidation of powers in one or two leaders. Some even suggest it has been done to tackle any challenges that could arise post-2024 polls, from leaders who have “the stature or potential to raise questions about or disagree with the decisions taken by the top leadership”.
Gadkari, who has always enjoyed RSS backing, is seen as a leader with “an independent view” who does not hesitate to express his opinion. Chouhan, a four-time CM, is a leader in his own right, independent of, and largely excluded from, the tight circle at the top in the BJP. In 2014, he was talked of briefly as one of the BJP’s prime ministerial contenders, before the Modi wave swept everyone out of the way. However, since 2020, when it took a split in the Congress for him to return to power, Chouhan has been careful to toe the central line.
The changes in the Parliamentary Board have also reinforced the unease among a section of the BJP and RSS ranks that Brahmin leaders are being sidelined, amid the emphasis on OBC politics. These leaders have been upset since the decision in Maharashtra leading to the elevation of rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde as the Chief Minister, forcing Devendra Fadnavis — a Brahmin leader considered close to Nagpur — to accept the Deputy CM post.
The 11-member Parliamentary Board now has four backward class leaders – new entrants B S Yediyurappa, Sudha Yadav and K Laxman, apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Among the other new members, Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal is a tribal leader, Iqbal Singh Lalpura belongs to the minority Sikh community and Satyanarayan Jatiya is from the SC community.
The other members are BJP President J P Nadda, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and General Secretary (Organisation) B L Santhosh.
Expected faces, such as the influential general secretaries of the party and other Union ministers, have been kept out.
The claim of “honouring karyakartas” with the changes has cut little ice among many given that, except Yediyurappa, the new entrants have little support among party cadre. A former Karnataka chief minister, Yediyurappa too has never shown any real interest in politics beyond the state, and is unlikely to hold strong views on national issues.
Contrary to the BJP’s emphasis that older leaders must give way, Gadkari and Chouhan (also an OBC leader), incidentally, are both in their early 60s. While new members Yediyurappa and Jatiya are 79 and 76, respectively.
A section in the BJP thinks the one, un-planned, gainer of the exercise could be Yogi Adityanath. With the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister not making it to the panel despite his popularity and growing strength – again seen as part of centralisation of power – some leaders say this exclusion could help him consolidate a distinct identity within the party structure.
Adityanath’s recent decision to revamp his, often controversial, Hindu Yuva Vahini outfit, “to assist the BJP in the 2024 elections”, is being seen as significant in this regard. The Vahini, with which both the BJP and RSS have had reservations, could be reshaped into a new form with the blessings of the Sangh leadership, some leaders say.
The main argument in favour of the new Parliamentary Board and CEC is that it shows how democratic the BJP is. “The new teams are inclusive, reflect the diversity of the country and honour the sincere and loyal karyakartas at the ground level. The party leadership has followed the same line, that it honours real workers and unknown faces, like it did in its choice of the president and vice-president candidates, and has done while picking Padma awardees,” a BJP leader said.
To this, at least two BJP leaders point out that the Parliamentary Board and CEC are meant to be bodies of experienced leaders, not workers.
Another argument in favour of the changes is that the BJP cannot dilute its re-figuration as a party of backwards and weaker sections at a time when it has faced setbacks in some areas – particularly Bihar — where it was confident about winning seats. This has upset the party’s calculations for 2024.
Nitish Kumar’s exit from the NDA will certainly affect the BJP’s support among the Most Backward and Extremely Backward Classes, which the JD(U) leader had brought for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 state elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, this combination had propelled the NDA to 39 of 40 Bihar seats.
With the JD(U) parting ways with it, the BJP has lost the only state in the East where it had the confidence of assured numbers. The South remains tough for the party, even as it is mounting the heat in Telangana. That leaves only the North, Centre and West, where the BJP may have already maximised its gains.