BJP Churn Shows Modi No Longer Wants Leaders He Supposedly Can Do Without
Maneka & Varun Gandhi’s exit sends the message that the Gandhis are no longer relevant to the BJP.
Once upon a time, Maneka Gandhi and her son, Feroze Varun Gandhi, were part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s arsenal against the mainline Gandhis, synonymous with the Congress in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. The duo was sharper, quicker on their feet, and, in Varun Gandhi’s case, certainly better-read. The BJP leadership of that time, partly in awe of the pedigreed mother and son, and certainly indulgent, was happy to place them in positions where they would be visible — and hopefully, a cause of annoyance for its arch enemies in the Congress. Besides, Maneka Gandhi was the desi bahu (Indian daughter-in-law) pitted against the videshi bahu (non-Indian daughter-in-law), Sonia.
Maneka Gandhi was swiftly made a central Minister when the BJP came to power in 1998 and she continued in office till 2002, when she was dropped. In 2014, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, she was back in the Union Council of Ministers, but failed to make the cut when the BJP returned to power in 2019.
How Ties With the Leadership Soured
Varun Gandhi, on his part, was given a ticket for a Lok Sabha constituency in 2009 as soon as he came of age: in 2004, a year short of 25, he started making public appearances on behalf of the BJP. In 2013, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, then BJP president, made Varun Gandhi a national general-secretary, making him the youngest to hold that position. And the late Pramod Mahajan, who was seen as a possible successor to Atal Behari Vajpayee before his untimely demise in 2006, was Varun Gandhi’s “guide” from 2004 onwards — he would praise him in his speeches, saying he would prove to be a better politician than cousin Rahul Gandhi.
If the BJP’s Gandhis were sharper and quicker on their feet than the Congress’s Gandhis, they eventually proved too arrogant for the BJP, especially the Modi-Shah duo. So, while mother and son continued to be given tickets for Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, which they repeatedly won, their equation with the top leadership of the BJP deteriorated.
It is not that Maneka Gandhi has changed over the years.
If VP Singh and Vajpayee, two of the three Prime Ministers she served under, regarded her with the indulgence reserved for a spoilt but much-loved daughter, Modi just saw her as an entitled Lutyen’s Delhi product for whom he had no time.
Varun, too, who had blossomed under LK Advani, Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh, was too busy creating a political space for himself, one that could match that of cousin Rahul Gandhi, perhaps carried away by reports that suggested that he was the more talented of the two. The only difference was that Rahul Gandhi had a vehicle all of his own — the hoary Congress — while Varun was just another MP in the BJP. Also, Varun, despite his vast ambition, was loath to confront frontally cousins he had grown up with.
No Need for Maneka Anymore?
The last straw, of course, came when he began to openly attack the BJP, as he recently did over the tragic episode in Lakhimpur Kheri, the constituency that borders his own in Pilibhit. He and his mother, Maneka Gandhi, were dropped from the national executive hours after he condemned the incident in which a Union Minister’s convoy ran over and killed four protesting farmers. “The video is crystal clear. Protesters cannot be silenced through murder. There has to be accountability for the innocent blood of farmers that has been spilt and justice must be delivered before a message of arrogance and cruelty enters the mind of every farmer,” he said on Twitter.
The message that the BJP leadership was sending out, ahead of the five upcoming Assembly elections — and that includes Uttar Pradesh — was that the Gandhis in their party were no longer relevant. Besides, Sonia Gandhi’s slide into retirement means that there is no need for a desi bahu to confront her; as for Rahul and Priyanka, they are no longer considered much of a threat.
So much more effective, therefore, to include union minister Smriti Irani in the party’s national executive, as she was in the recent shuffle of the party’s premier policymaking body. She has, after all, not only wrested the family borough of Amethi from Rahul Gandhi but is ever willing to confront the Gandhis directly.
The New BJP
Indeed, a quick glance at the changes in the BJP’s national executive reflects the changing nature of the party’s needs — and the ruthlessness with which these have been put through. Rajya Sabha MP Subramaniam Swamy, who dates back to the party’s Jan Sangh days, has often been publicly critical of the party’s policies — so, he is out.
Firebrand leader and once a hero of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, Vinay Katiyar, is out, too — with the construction of the Ram Temple under way, he is no longer needed.
S S Ahluwalia, who gave the BJP one of the earliest Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal, has been dropped. Seen as an acolyte of the late Arun Jaitley, he has instead been replaced by a whole new contingent from the state. The new entrants include former Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, who came from the Trinamool Congress, and Swapan Dasgupta and Anirban Ganguly, saffron ideologues for the bhadralok.
Chaudhury Birender Singh was brought with great fanfare from the Congress ahead of the 2014 polls as a prominent Jat face from Haryana, and he was pedigreed to boot, being Sir Choturam’s grandson. He was immediately made a Cabinet Minister but was subsequently dropped from the Union Council of Ministers when the party returned to power in 2019. Now, he is out of the national executive as well because he has been critical of the contentious farm laws.
Incidentally, 37 of the 80 members of the new national executive are Union Ministers and a number of Ministers from states are part of the committee. This means ordinary members of the party have less of a say in the BJP’s deliberative mechanism, making the party that much less democratic.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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