Monday, December 28, 2015

Can Modi afford to dump Jaitley ?

By attacking Arun Jaitley, Modi opponents trying to isolate him


Article first published in +DailyO India Today (Click here to read)

Delhi was rife with rumours about Arun Jaitley's imminent shift from the finance ministry before Budget making starts. Post the Bihar debacle as talks of a Cabinet reshuffle subsided - the chances of Jaitley's removal also receded. After all, with Amit Shah cut to size he remained the prime minister's strongest ally both in the party and the government. It is, perhaps, for this very same reason - Modi's detractors and Jaitley's foes took it upon themselves to do what Modi himself couldn't afford to at this juncture.

Much is being made of the prime minister's "will come out in flying colours" remark comparing Jaitley with Advani. Whether it was a subtle hint at resignation or not - it is significant that the PM broke his customary reticence on such matters. He has reasons to be worried - because the attackers were coming too close for comfort. After Shah and Jaitley, they could next take on Modi directly - as with these two strong lieutenants politically neutered - he would be quite lonely in Delhi. For all his moral grandstanding, Jaitley himself looked rather rattled - knowing he was directly in the line of fire. This is apparent not just in his filing the defamation suit against Kejriwal, but also in his accusation that Kirti Azad met Sonia Gandhi.

Although the ire of the BJP "old guard" and the "fallen-by-the-wayside" was at the collective entity that Arun Shourie called the "Trimurti" - it was Jaitley who they thought was the illegitimate usurper - even after losing his maiden Lok Sabha bid from Amritsar. It was a view that found support even from Modi supporters who felt Jaitley was the Lutyens' surrogate in NDA coming in the way of bold actions. Now, with Amit Shah having been eliminated by his own self-goal in Bihar, Jaitley was easy for the picking.

It may not be a coincidence that the three major scandals to rock the Modi government - that put Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and, now, Jaitley, in the life of fire - had something to do with cricket. Vasundhara and Sushma could have been targeted on many issues, but for Jaitley, cricket is, perhaps, the Achilles Heel that opponents were smart enough to latch onto.

The rivalry between Jaitley and Swaraj is one of Delhi's worst kept secrets and has been well documented by some senior journalists. Many, therefore, believed "Lalit-gate" could have been inspired by the Jaitley camp to put Swaraj and Raje on the mat. Lalit Modi didn't pull his punches even then.

Like many in the BJP today Jaitley owed his rise in BJP to Advani - who had appointed him party spokesperson that gave him a national profile. However, post Advani's Jinnah faux pas, he was quick to jettison him and also one of the early Delhi entrants into the Modi camp. While Advani's protégée - Sushma Swaraj - was dithering to accept Modi as PM candidate, Jaitley had decidedly crossed the Rubicon.

The interesting pattern that is emerging now is the anti-Jaitley axis, which seems to be cutting across party lines in reverse trajectory from AAP to Congress and now finally coming home to Advani's residence. It's easy to dismiss this as transient opportunism, though irony dies when Congress spokespersons and Kejriwal accuse BJP of lacking inner-party democracy and shooting the messenger. The truth could run deeper. The "enemy" may have penetrated the inner ranks of the BJP. By eliminating Jaitley and Shah they are hoping to isolate Modi, forcing him to fend for himself. This may be a high-risk strategy - as one can't predict how Modi will react.

So one is waiting with bated breath to see what Modi does on his return from Russia and Afghanistan - whether he'll choose to cut his losses by jettisoning Jaitley or declare war by consolidating his ranks for a fight to finish.