An intra-parivar tug-of-war behind closed doors has culminated in Rajnath Singh dramatically replacing Nitin Gadkari as BJP president. But who won? Certainly, the RSS has registered a setback. Its favoured candidate did not get the re-election that it had pushed for till the end, in spite of the serious question marks against his business dealings. And this, after the sangh had forced the party to amend its constitution last year to ensure a second term for Gadkari. But the setback for the RSS must not be overstated. For the sangh, Rajnath Singh has been no challenger, either to its worldview or its stranglehold over the BJP. And for the BJP, Singh is, in fact, a step back to square one. Gadkari took on the mantle from Singh in 2009, at the end of a tenure marked by unchecked factional squabbling and electoral debacles for the party in Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre. Therefore, though the RSS's favourite swayamsevak has been denied a second term, this cannot be read as a glorious or unmixed moment of assertion of the party over its micro-managers in the sangh. If there is something edifying about this spectacle of partial victory and incomplete defeat, however, it is the apparently principled and unwavering position taken by BJP veteran L.K. Advani.
By all accounts, through all the curtained drama that preceded the election of the BJP president on Wednesday, Advani had outlined his resistance to Gadkari's re-election on two fundamental counts: because there are serious corruption charges against him, and because he represents the RSS's micro-management, as distinct from guidance, of the BJP. For these reasons, Advani had become, and was seen to be, the rallying point for the opposition to Gadkari in the BJP. Arguably, on both counts, Advani has fairly impressive credentials. He famously resigned from the 10th Lok Sabha after being charged by the CBI in the hawala case, vowing not to fight another election till he was absolved of the charges; having revised the line on Jinnah during his trip to Pakistan in 2005, he refused to buckle under the RSS reaction at home, even preferring to step down as party president.
Rajnath Singh does not start his second tenure with a clean slate, and he is burdened by his own uninspiring record, but circumstances have conspired to give him a significant choice: as party president, he can either build on the tentative assertion of his party against the organisation that is its back-seat driver — or not. Of course, as he works out a new balance, or treads an older path, he must also stanch the party's bleeding in Karnataka, steer the party through assembly elections in 2013 and brace for a possible Narendra Modi takeover before 2014.