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Illustration: Bhaskaran

In the seven years he has been the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's point man for the BJP, Suresh Soni has grown in strength and clout. Many party leaders suggest that the pracharak from Madhya Pradesh has been manipulating the changes in the BJP's campaign leadership. L.K. Advani even complained to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat about the role Soni played in bringing Narendra Modi as the big face of the BJP.

Soni, however, enjoys the RSS leadership's confidence. He rarely comes to the forefront, but controls the BJP through a network of organisational secretaries at the national and state level, most of whom are from the RSS stock. However, it was not Soni who had pushed Advani out as BJP president in 2005. Soni's predecessor Madan Das Devi, an RSS veteran, took umbrage at Advani's praise for Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

When Devi stepped aside because of ill health, Soni, despite his strong likes and dislikes, was chosen for the key post. In his home state, Soni did not get along well with the charismatic but mercurial Uma Bharti, who had brought the BJP to power in 2003. However, he struck a good rapport with Rajnath Singh, who was BJP president. Interestingly, Advani's close aide Ananth Kumar, who has an RSS background, maintains strong links with Soni. 

After the NDA's disastrous show in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in which Advani was projected as the coalition's prime ministerial candidate, Soni decided that the party could not be led by a nominee of Advani. Hence came the formula “None of the Delhi Four”, wherein Bhagwat ruled out making any of the four Delhi-based leaders, who were close to Advani, party president. The Delhi Four are former BJP president Venkaiah Naidu, parliamentary party leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, and Ananth Kumar. Soni played a role in bringing Nitin Gadkari from Nagpur as party president.

When Gadkari did not get a second term, Soni pushed hard for the return of Rajnath Singh. He even helped Singh make a long presentation at the RSS Pratinidhi Sabha (its largest decision-making forum) in Jaipur on changes needed in the BJP's strategies and personalities for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Soni had felt it was inevitable to take a hardline and break a few eggs in the NDA basket to push for saffron primacy. No wonder Advani likened him to a master puppeteer who pulled strings making leaders like Rajnath, Jaitley and Kumar gyrate as he pulled them. Former party president Murli Manohar Joshi and Swaraj were the only people who voiced their dissent over Modi's elevation at the Goa national executive.

Now that he has his team of Modi and Rajnath, Soni would move fast forward, knowing well he has the support of the RSS high command. He hopes to soar high, but the Advani camp fears he would make the party crash-land.

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