New Delhi, Jan. 22: Rajnath Singh is set to be BJP president, capping an internecine battle that saw two white-moustachioed patriarchs biting the dust but not before thwarting each other.
Nitin Gadkari, the incumbent battling corruption charges and enjoying the blessings of the RSS chief, put in his papers tonight after it became clear that sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat had run into an ambush attributed to L.K. Advani.
Advani drew the satisfaction of foiling Bhagwat's candidate but he had to accept the diktat of the RSS that picked Rajnath, a former BJP president.
Till late this evening, it appeared that Bhagwat would have his way. But two events appeared to have turned the tide against the RSS chief and Gadkari.
The income tax department searched some premises associated with Gadkari's companies, renewing focus on the corruption charges on him that the BJP chief and the Sangh have stoutly denied. Even then, the Gadkari camp appeared so confident that a media statement referred to his "re-election", only to retract an hour later (see chart on right).
Advani, backed by his peers Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha, refused to accept Bhagwat's proposal to renew Gadkari's term.
Apart from the notion that Gadkari's reinstatement would hobble the BJP's anti-corruption campaign against the UPA, Advani's stiff opposition stemmed from his fear that Gadkari was a front for the Sangh. Sources said the Advani camp had concluded that under Gadkari, Bhagwat hoped to intervene "directly and decisively" in the party's affairs.
Bhagwat, on the other hand, was unprepared to countenance Advani looming like a shadow over the BJP. The RSS-Advani equation, said sources, was so "skewed" with mutual distrust that the Sangh suspected that Advani, once the "apple of its eye", could manipulate himself as a Prime Minister frontrunner if the BJP gained an edge in the 2014 polls.
In the afternoon, prodded by Advani, Yashwant, the former finance and foreign minister, signalled that he might contest against Gadkari. Sinha sent an emissary to collect the nomination papers and the voter list from the BJP office.
Unlike Mahesh Jethmalani, the Mumbai lawyer supposed to take on Gadkari, nobody regarded Sinha as a "lightweight".
By coincidence, Advani and Gadkari were in Mumbai to attend a Sangh event today and they shared the dais. Both met Suresh "Bhaiyyaji" Joshi, Bhagwat's second-in-command.
Joshi's message to Advani was terse: if he couldn't accept Gadkari, he had to settle for the Sangh's second choice, Rajnath. A similar request earlier was rejected by Advani, who never trusted Rajnath because he saw him as a Sangh "puppet".
Joshi made it clear that none of Advani's nominees were acceptable.
In Delhi, Opposition leaders, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were called on by another senior Sangh functionary, Suresh Soni. Sushma's name was earlier broached by Advani. But she declined his offer, signalling that in the power sweepstakes, she opted to be on the RSS's right side.
Former president M. Venkaiah Naidu and the general secretary (organisation), Ramlal, were part of the meeting at Jaitley's house.
Word reached from Nagpur, which houses the Sangh headquarters, that Rajnath was the RSS's choice and, by implication, the BJP should endorse his candidacy without ado, the sources said.
Jaitley did have a patchy relationship with Rajnath in the latter's earlier tenure. But sources said he too figured out that a crisis had to be averted and, in the circumstances, the leader from Uttar Pradesh was perhaps the best bet.
Sources said Rajnath was on the Sangh's radar for the past few days. In his first innings, Rajnath had ejected Narendra Modi from the BJP's top decision-making panel, the parliamentary board, ostensibly to please the RSS whose relations with Modi had then plunged to a nadir.
Rajnath has since made up with Modi, around whom the BJP's Prime Minister debates are swirling.
Many Congress leaders were praying that Gadkari remains BJP president and a permanent punching bag. Asked if the tax raids backfired, a Congress leader demurred and said Gadkari could not claim the moral high ground since he did not voluntarily step down but was hounded out.