Will Pravin Togadia feel more emboldened to take on his bête noire Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the death of  senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal?

Although Togadia was named International Working President of the VHP leader in 2011 when Singhal decided to step down because of ill-health, the senior leader continued to exercise considerable influence over the organisation. Singhal was at the forefront of the Ram temple movement in the early 1990s and was responsible for the growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party along with veteran leader LK Advani.

The 89-year-old Singhal was unapologetic about his mission to propagate the Hindutva agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and press for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Despite his strong beliefs, the tensions between the VHP and the BJP never reached a flash point as Singhal took care not to cross the Lakshman rekha drawn by the RSS.

In a different mould

However, Togadia is cast in a different mould. He is hot-headed, often described by BJP insiders as a loose cannon, known for making inflammatory speeches and promoting a rabid brand of Hindutva which often becomes a source of embarrassment for the BJP.  More importantly, he has a strong and personal dislike for Modi.

Singhal was also known to take potshots at Modi. He had even likened him to Mohammad Ghazni when the Modi government demolished a large number of temples in Gujarat. However, Singhal made up with Modi subsequently and was known to have a cordial relationship with the prime minister. However, this is not the case with Togadia who remains steadfastly opposed to Modi.

Now that Togadia will have free run of VHP affairs, will he create trouble for  Modi by stepping up his rhetoric?

It is still early to predict the turn of events but BJP insiders believe that the RSS will keep Togadia in check and that the VHP leader will not say or do anything  to earn the Sangh’s wrath. “There is no doubt that Togadia’s articulation of issues is different from that of Singhal but I think he will function within the parameters set by the RSS,” remarked a BJP leader.

While that may be well be true, there is also no denying the antipathy between Togadia and Modi.

Thick as thieves once...

The  two were once known in Gujarat as the “Jai-Veeru” jodi, after the lead-pair in film Sholay, as they criss-crossed Gujarat to propagate the Sangh’s ideology. Modi and Togadia were key figures in the Keshubhai Patel government who fought together to quell the Shankersinh Vaghela-led revolt. The duo was so close that Modi even hit the streets when Togadia was jailed by Vaghela.

Togadia wielded immense power when Modi was first named Gujarat chief minister in 2001. The VHP leader played a key role in the postings of police officers and  ensured the appointment  of his known loyalist Gordhan Zadaphia as  minister of state for home in Modi’s team. However, the two parted company after the 2002 Gujarat assembly elections when Modi moved quickly to cut Togadia to size. Modi took on Togadia’s loyalists and sent out a clear message that he will not tolerate their interference in the functioning of his government.

Their relationship reached breaking point when the Modi government cracked down on VHP cadres for their role in the 2002 riots. Sidelined in his home state, Togadia hit back at Modi in the 2012 assembly elections when the VHP rank and file openly worked against Modi and even helped the Gujarat Parivartan Party, led by rebels Keshubhai Patel and Gordhan Zadaphia. But Togadia failed in this mission as Modi emerged stronger, catapulting him to the national political scene.

Waiting for an opportunity

Although he has been overtaken by others in the BJP, Togadia has made several attempts to unsettle Modi with his intemperate remarks and rabid speeches. He had famously declared once that Gujarat would be declared a Hindu state. He hit out at the Modi government for not taking  stern action against pro-Pakistani elements in Jammu and Kashmir and had even said that “it is necessary to shoot people if they hoist Pakistani flags.” The VHP chief was also quick to criticise the government’s  “foreign policy with regard to Pakistan” following the terrorist attack in Gurdaspur, stating sarcastically that Modi should put an end to the “saree, shawl diplomacy”.

Given Modi’s tight grip over the BJP and the government, Togadia is , at best, a minor irritant for the Prime Minister. However, the VHP chief can be expected to flex his muscles at the first hint of trouble for Modi. Togadia is in no position to unseat his bête noire but he could stir up a storm to make it difficult for him to function.