Not for nothing has Ram Jethmalani earned the sobriquet Battering Ram. The veteran lawyer and Bharatiya Janata Party member loves a good fight, a behavioural trait that has caused him often to clash with his party leadership. So at one level his suspension from the BJP — followed by a show-cause notice — is just a replay of history. Yet this time round there appears to be a conspiratorial backstory to Mr. Jethmalani’s rebellion which has clearly unsettled party president Nitin Gadkari and his backers, among them the ideological high priests at Jhandewalan. The senior Jethmalani straddles both sides of the ideological divide. If in his heyday he defended terror convicts with some élan, more recently he upset the legion of Hindutva warriors with his outbursts against Lord Ram. As against this, Mr. Jethmalani’s current passion is Narendra Modi, whom he appears determined to install as India’s Prime Minister, doing whatever it takes to achieve his objective — from lobbying the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to leading a campaign to oust Mr. Gadkari. It is this open plotting against the incumbent BJP chief — with all its attendant consequences — that has resulted in the party acting against Mr. Jethmalani.
It is apparent enough that the BJP has read deeper meanings into Mr. Jethmalani’s quarrels with the party leadership on the appointment of Ranjit Sinha as the new CBI chief. Mr. Jethmalani not only questioned the BJP’s “flawed” opposition to Mr. Sinha’s appointment, he made sure he was joined by other dissenting voices from within the party. It cannot have been a coincidence that the same set of rebels also back Mr. Modi for Prime Minister and want Mr. Gadkari despatched as a first step towards this larger goal. In other words, l’affaire Jethmalani is not so much about an individual’s misdemeanours as it is symptomatic of the turf battles raging within the BJP. A victory in Gujarat for Mr. Modi — especially if it is handsome — can only deepen the fissures, with the Chief Minister’s backers certain to pitch him as a superhero waiting to deliver India to the saffron fold. Yet the Gujarat Chief Minister evokes deep fears, both within the BJP and among its potential allies. The BJP knows that the organisation will turn into a one-man show under Mr. Modi leading to the virtual eclipse of those with higher ambitions. The RSS, which nurtured Mr. Modi, abhors the cult of personality which it sees as damaging to ideology. The BJP has so far had little luck with expanding its alliance of parties. With Mr. Modi in command, potential allies will have further cause to keep their distance from the BJP.