New Delhi: But precisely because Nitin Gadkari is a more acceptable alternative to Narendra Modi as prime minister should the Bharatiya Janata Party’s post-election seats dramatically slump, it is likelier that he will face enormous opposition from Modi and Modi’s hatchet man, Amit Shah, in realizing his ambition. If Narendra Modi is unacceptable to a weakened BJP and forcefully rejected too by its allies as seems likely, how about Rajnath Singh as a compromise PM candidate? Narendra Modi could exult in his role as kingmaker and puppeteer, Amit Shah would get to keep his job as BJP president, and Nitin Gadkari would be effectively stalled in his barely concealed campaign to succeed the Gujarat strongman. Since anything is possible in high places and Lutyens Delhi, count Rajnath Singh among the likely prime minister possibilities of 2019.

In private conversations of BJP leaders and ministers from Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath Singh’s name has already surfaced as a potential successor to Narendra Modi. While Rajnath Singh may not have obliged political leaders cutting across party lines as much as Gadkari has, he still has accumulated adequate goodwill in the political establishment to give him a fighting chance. Although a RSS volunteer from early youth, Rajnath follows the moderate line of Uttar Pradesh politics pioneered by Atal Behari Vajpayee in the Jana Sangh. Rajnath Singh would have no use for Adityanath’s firebrand politics and he cannot be too pleased with Adityanath’s usurpation of his place as the tallest Rajput BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh. If there is a choice between Narendra Modi (and sitting in the opposition in 2019) and Rajnath Singh (and power), the RSS will unambiguously back the former, albeit unsuccessful, Uttar Pradesh chief minister. And once Rajnath Singh becomes prime minister, Modi and Amit Shah can quit hallucinating about controlling him. Rajnath Singh is not a Rajput for nothing.

Nevertheless, Rajnath Singh’s career has been something of a fluke. When he became Uttar Pradesh chief minister in October 2000, there was expectation of a re-emergence of the party and a return of strong administrative qualities to government seen in his former boss, Kalyan Singh’s first foreshortened term. As Kalyan Singh’s education minister, Rajnath Singh spearheaded, in addition to discredited history rewriting projects, the anti-copying act which was popular among the middle class but needlessly draconian, the hallmark of BJP policies. As chief minister, however, Rajnath ended with a whimper. In the post-Babri Masjid decline of the BJP, his attempts to erode Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party votebanks with a Most Backward Classes category for reservations failed the electoral test. He returned to Vajpayee’s Central cabinet with lacklustre performances altogether, on two outings, as minister for surface transport and agriculture with food processing added later. What accounted for Rajnath Singh’s survival? It was his proximity to the RSS leadership and his Uttar Pradesh background, the heartland state with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats.

When L. K. Advani fell afoul of the RSS for calling Mohammed Ali Jinnah “secular” (Pakistan’s founder was an opportunist hoist by his own petard), Rajnath was presumably ordered by the RSS to take charge of the party and control the damage to its Hindutva credentials. Strangely, his closeness to the RSS had not made him hard-line; he still remains a moderate face of Narendra Modi’s government, which says something about his personal values. Likewise, when Nitin Gadkari faced corruption charges which were eventually withdrawn, Rajnath Singh stepped into the breach under RSS guidance to lead the party again. Rajnath’s vote was crucial to declare Narendra Modi PM candidate for 2014 despite strenuous objections from L. K. Advani & Co. Given his background, he had to be acting on RSS directions. While Nitin Gadkari is as close to the RSS if not closer (with an added Nagpur connection), Rajnath Singh appears the RSS’s person of choice in tricky situations. If Narendra Modi is unacceptable to the BJP and its allies in any situation, Rajnath Singh’s star would rise. Since Uttar Pradesh will unite behind Rajnath in case he is a serious contender for prime minister, it is a development that the BJP/ RSS cannot ignore: Modi is an import to Uttar Pradesh but Rajnath is local.

What could weigh against Rajnath in public opinion as compared to his nearest rival, Gadkari, say, is his virtual non-performance as cabinet minister in both Vajpayee and Narendra Modi’s governments. Vajpayee brought out the best in ministers; somehow, Rajnath never shone. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has such a tight grip on the administration that the best ministers feel asphyxiated. Even so, since Rajnath Singh has no ministerial talent, he has shown none in his present portfolio of home. The Union home ministry has had some awful ministers prior: S. B. Chavan, Shivraj Patil, etc. Rajnath Singh is in good company. He is probably well-fitted for police functions with his courtly UP ways and for moderating the Modi regime’s hard-line image in exceptional circumstances. With these limited strengths, Rajnath Singh has survived in the jungle of BJP politics and done rather well for himself. With further blessings of the RSS, he may well be the surprise replacement for Narendra Modi this year should Modi’s worst nightmares come true. Rating: Three out of 10.

To be continued...

Please read “2019,” “2019-2, “2019-3, “2019-4, “2019-5” and “2019-6”.