Although the Bharatiya Janata Party made a concerted effort to put up grand show of solidarity when Amit Shah was elected party chief on Sunday, it found it difficult to hide its internal fissures at the event.

Prominent about those who failed to show up to wish the BJP president were LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, though this was only to be expected. After all, the two senior leaders have been sulking ever since they were marginalised by the new party leadership two years ago.

But it was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s absence at the function that was more surprising, particularly since most BJP major leaders and chief ministers made it a point to register their presence on this occasion. Only those who were out of town stayed away: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Chandigarh to welcome French President Francois Hollande while Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was away in Bahrain.)

Although BJP spokespersons explained that Jaitley could not make it as his flight from Switzerland had been delayed, it is learnt that the finance minister had reached Delhi while the celebrations at the party headquarters were still underway. Jaitley had travelled to Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Uneasy relationship

While Jaitley had a ready excuse to explain his absence on the occasion of the BJP president’s election, the seemingly innocuous episode has turned the spotlight on intra-party relations.

Shah and Jaitley share an uneasy relationship.

It all started in the run-up to last year’s Delhi assembly elections when an unhappy Shah was sidelined and Jaitley was brought in to take charge of the party’s poll campaign. The last-minute move was seen as a vote of no-confidence in Shah who had been handling the campaign till then. The BJP president apparently did not take kindly to this change as he had been credited with the party’s remarkable wins in the Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha poll and in the last Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand assembly elections.

But the party turned to Jaitley for help when it realised that its campaign was floundering as Shah’s decision to project former police offer Kiran Bedi as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate backfired. It was widely believed that the finance minister would be able to salvage the situation since he hails from Delhi. Moreover, Jaitley came with a formidable reputation, having notched up a series of victories for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka.

However, Jaitley lost his magic touch in Delhi. The BJP was routed as the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party swept the polls. His detractors were quick to mount a campaign against him and his band of loyalists – Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan – whose services had been requisitioned by Jaitley to help him run the campaign.

Shah clearly felt vindicated after the Delhi result. The BJP president got an opportunity to hit back during the Bihar election. Citing Jaitley’s inability to win Delhi, the party president ensured that the finance minister had no role to play in this poll campaign. This came as a surprise as Jaitley had earlier held charge of Bihar affairs and had been instrumental in delivering blockbuster results for the BJP in the 2005 and 2010 assembly elections.

Taking charge

The 2015 Bihar election was, however, a complete Shah show. The BJP president had the final say on the selection of candidates and drawing up the poll strategy. Well aware that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and his own personal reputation was at stake in Bihar, Shah chose his own team and took on the responsibility of micro-managing the election, including booth management

If Jaitley was at the receiving end after the Delhi polls, Shah felt the heat after the Bihar verdict. Consequently, there was a brief spell of uncertainty about Shah’s re-election as BJP president as his detractors were quick to blame him for the party’s humiliating defeat in this crucial election. Party seniors Advani, Joshi, Shanta Kumar and Yashwant Sinha even went to the extent of issuing a statement after the party’s rout in Bihar in which they raised questions about Shah’s style of functioning. Although no other leader openly supported the BJP veterans, there was a palpable anger in the party regarding Shah’s flawed electoral strategy in Bihar and, more particularly, his arrogant attitude.

But even as Jaitley and Shah appeared to be on shaky ground after the Delhi and Bihar assembly results, it turned out to be a temporary phase. Both leaders are known to be Modi’s confidants and troubleshooters. While the prime minister turns to Jaitley for assistance and advice on the government’s key policy issues, he depends on Shah to manage the party affairs.