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The tentwallah who divided the BJP

By Renu Mittal in New Delhi
March 17, 2009 12:07 IST
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The epithet tentwallah has stuck to him throughout his long and colourful political career. But Sudhanshu Mittal, the 'tentwallah' behind the much publicised rift in the Bharatiya Janata Party's top ranks, is a millionaire many times over.

Mittal, a close aide of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and the bete noire of party general secretary Arun Jaitley, is no stranger to controversies.

The divide in the BJP's top brass blew wide open when Mittal, a longtime member of first the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and then the BJP, was appointed the additional co-ordinator for the North East by party president Rajnath Singh.

Mittal had been in touch with the Assom Gana Parishad since 2005, when despite his best efforts, an alliance between the AGP and BJP alliance could not be forged. The Congress won the state election and an analysis of the results showed that the split in the anti-Congress votes had prevented the combine from coming to power.

Undeterred, Mittal continued negotiations with the AGP, and his efforts resulted in its alliance with the BJP for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. As a result, he was made in-charge of the party's affairs in the North East, with special emphasis on Assam.

This ordinary appointment set off an extraordinary set of events in the BJP. Jaitley refused to accept the appointment and declared that he will not attend the party's election committee meeting till it was rescinded.

Jaitley told his close aides that he had to oppose the appointment of 'middlemen' in the party's organisational structure. The resultant controversy has revealed the deep schisms within the party -- which is now busy doing damage control -- barely a few weeks before the crucial parliamentary elections.

The question on everybody's mind is: Who is Sudhanshu Mittal and what is it about him that makes Jaitley so angry?

The two leaders, in fact, have many things in common. Both went to St Xaviers School in Delhi and then the Sri Ram College of Commerce. Both are Delhiites who have been associated with the student wing politics of the BJP.

Ironic as it may sound, it was Jaitley who inducted Mittal into politics, through the Delhi University Student's Union. Mittal even followed in Jaitley's footsteps when he became the ABVP DUSU president in 1981, seven years after Jaitley had held the same post.

Mittal comes from a business family which deals in tents, earning him the epithet tentwallah. Mittal's father and wife now look after his multi-crore business empire.

Mittal touched the pinnacle of political power when he became a close aide of Pramod Mahajan, who was considered the most powerful man in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government. Today, a larger-than-life photograph of Mahajan adorns the wall in Mittal's office, located on the seventh floor of a posh building in Lutyens' Delhi.

The huge photograph is a reflection of the relationship between the two, with Mittal almost succumbing to political oblivion after Mahajan's tragic death in 2006.

Mittal, the then vice president of the Delhi Yuva Morcha, first met Mahajan in 1983. Their relationship grew stronger with the years, and when Mahajan was touted as the most powerful person in the Vajpayee-led NDA regime, observers pointed out that the low-profile Mittal was the real power centre behind the charismatic leader.

On any given day, Mittal could be found in Mahajan's high-tech residence-cum-office, from where the bulk of the party's election campaign and media monitoring was conducted. Even the party's manifesto was released at Mahajan's residence.

Though Mittal steered clear of any kind of publicity, he landed in the middle of the media spotlight after Mahajan's son Rahul overdosed on drugs a few days after his father's death. Mittal saved Rahul's life by rushing him to the hospital in time, while Mahajan's secretary Vivek succumbed to the overdose.

Very few are aware of the crucial role that Mittal played in bringing the Vasundhara Raje Scindia-led BJP government to power in Rajasthan in 2003, when he, along with Mahajan, masterminded the entire election campaign. Equally interested in computers and electioneering, Mittal has been involved with the nitty-gritty of election management, an aspect of politics he understands really well.

Jaitley's dissent against him has again yanked Mittal to unwanted media glare. His telephones haven't stopped ringing and hitherto distant party leaders and workers have been dropping by for causal visits. Some feel that Mittal is becoming a rallying point for the anti-Jaitley forces in the party -- even Sushma Swaraj is favourably disposed towards him. The fact that Rajnath Singh appointed Mittal after consultations with the BJP's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani has added to Jaitley's discomfort.

Political observers feel that Jaitley's dissent may have set the ball rolling for a major showdown in the party. Insiders say that Jaitley is trying to target Singh, but has been isolated in his attempt as he is now being perceived as someone seeking a large chunk of the control of the BJP.

Meanwhile, Mittal continues to smile unwaveringly in spite of the controversy erupting around him, and refuses to comment on Jaitley's stance. He maintains that he sees no reason why the general secretary was upset with his appointment as "I have just been doing my work in Assam".

BJP workers are wondering if Jaitley has unintentionally created a new leader in their ranks. But it is an interesting faceoff between the man known to have the Midas touch and the man who has deep pockets and an expertise to spin funds.

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Renu Mittal in New Delhi