In a setback to Uma Bharati's efforts to make a comeback as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party central leadership on Saturday decided to hand over the mantle to its state unit President Shivraj Singh Chauhan while rehabilitating the fiery Sanyasin as party's national General Secretary.
As Bharati virtually raised a banner of revolt against incumbent Babulal Gaur, once her nominee, the second generation leadership in the party, who have often been at the receiving end of her verbal and written attacks, closed ranks and rallied behind the 46-year old Chauhan, another Other Backward Caste leader and four-time Member of Parliament from Vidisha.
The first round of the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting took place about 11:30 am for a couple of hours. But no decision was made during the meeting.
Uma Bharati, who had been asking for her re-instatement as the chief minister called on Vajpayee later in the evening but refused to divulge details of her meeting with him.
The second round of the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting began at 5:30 pm and ended at 7:30 pm when Jaitley announced that while Chauhan would be the new chief minister, Bharati had been accommodated as the party general secretary in Delhi.
Ironically, party National General Secretary Arun Jaitley announced in Delhi that Gaur had offered to step down barely
hours after Gaur told reporters in Indore that he will try to continue in the chair for full five year term.
A former state Secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Chauhan was considered close to the late BJP President Kushabhau Thakre.
Soon after the announcement, Chauhan met both former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and party Chief L K Advani and sought to strike a rapproachment with Bharati, who had vehemently opposed his candidature.
"Her role in the state is important and will continue to remain so," he said.
Bharati, however, was incommunicado and sources close to her said the firebrand leader was upset over the high command's decision.
Making the announcement after the second meeting of the Board lasting for 90 minutes at Vajpayee's residence, Jaitley told reporters, Gaur made a proposal to Advani that he wanted to step down.
"The Central Parliamentary Board met today to discuss a new leader. It was decided to call a meeting of the legislature party where Shivraj Singh Chauhan will be elected as leader", Jaitley, who is incharge for Madhya Pradesh Affairs, said.
He said keeping in mind the services of Uma Bharati to the party, the BJP has decided to utilise her services at the national level and make her national General Secretary.
The date and central observers for the legislature party meeting would be decided by Advani later, Jaitley said.
Saturday's decision brought the curtains down on the Bharati's comeback bid which gathered momentum last month with ministers and legislators close to her engaging in a signature campaign and lobbying her case with central leaders in New Delhi. Chauhan's supporters too campaigned for him.
Bharati had also incurred the wrath of the RSS after she attacked its Joint General Secretary Suresh Soni and accused him of interfering in the party's state unit.
Dismissing suggestions of any resentment within the state legislature party, Chauhan said everybody would abide by whatever decision the party took.
Elected to the Madhya Pradesh legislative Assembly for the first time in 1990, Chauhan, who would be one of the youngest chief ministers of the country, got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991. He was made president of the party's youth wing Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in 2000.
According to highly placed party sources, both Vajpayee and senior leader Jaswant Singh were in favour of consulting the legislators before taking a decision or imposing anybody.
Rajnath Singh and party vice-president Venkaih Naidu were notable absentees from the meeting.
However, with the covert backing of Advani, the second generation leaders, particularly Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Sanjay Joshi struck to their guns and ultimately had their way.
With Jaswant Singh leaving the meeting before the conclusion of the meeting, speculation was rife that he was not in full agreement with the decision. However, he was not available for comment.
As the party's central leaders confabulated, Bharati also made a last ditch effort meeting Jaitley, Sanjay Joshi and Mahajan at the Maharashtra leader's residence. She also called on both Advani (over lunch) and Vajpayee.
The party General Secretaryship offered to her was more aimed at silencing her rather than rehabilitating her, the sources said.
It was also not sure whether she would bite the bait but the party's Central leadership was prepared to deal with any situation if she decides to rebel and had factored this into account while taking the decision, the sources said.
Jaitley had met party MPs from the state and Advani discussed the issue with both Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh on Friday before taking a final view on Saturday.
According to senior party leaders, Bharati was unlikely to accept this arrangement and that "The last word on this controversial issue has not yet been said."
With PTI inputs