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In a sudden and dramatic last-minute twist, Nitin Gadkari, facing allegations of dubious funding of his company, was tonight forced out of the race for BJP President's post and Rajnath Singh appeared to have emerged the consensus candidate.
In a late-night development, Gadkari issued a statement opting out of the election scheduled tomorrow, saying he did not want that allegations against him should in any way adversely affect the interests of BJP.
"I have, therefore, decided not to seek a second term as the President of BJP," he said.
Gadkari, whose candidature was being strongly pushed by RSS despite reservations within the party, was all set for re-election before senior leader Yashwant Sinha decided this evening to throw his hat in tomorrow's polls.
The move by Sinha, who had earlier demanded Gadkari's resignation in the wake of allegations of impropriety by his firm Purti Group, forced top BJP leaders including Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, M Venkaiah Naidu and RSS representative Ram Lal into a huddle to deliberate on the evolving situation.
After the meeting, Rajnath Singh's name emerged as the consenses alternative, sources said.
62-year-old Rajnath, who had served as BJP president till 2009 before Gadkari, is also considered close to RSS and that appeared to have tilted the balance in his favour.
Sources said Gadkari is expected to propose Rajnath Singh's name for the top party post tomorrow.
However, in his statement, Gadkari claimed that he had committed no wrong or any impropriety either directly or indirectly.
"Yet the UPA government has been making an effort to spread disinformation about me in order to hurt me and my party. I have always said that I am willing for any independent inquiry.
"I shall fight these efforts of the government, both politically and legally," he said in a statement on a day the IT department surveyed 11 locations of shell companies which had allegedly invested money in his Purti Group.
Ever since social activist Arvind Kejriwal and others came out with allegations about his links with irrigation scam and later the financial wrongdoings by his Purti Group, Gadkari came under attack from senior party MPs like Yashwant Sinha, Shatrughan Sinha, Ram Jethmalani and his son Mahesh Jethmalani.
Ram Jethmalani, in fact, triggered the demand for Gadkari's resignation when he shot off a letter to him and was later joined by two Sinhas. Another senior leader Jaswant Singh is also said to have backed these leaders.
The final nail in Gadkari's coffin came when senior leader L K Advani made it clear to RSS top brass that it would be untenable for him to continue in the post at a time when BJP is leading a campaign against the Congress-led UPA over corruption issue.
In fact, the chill between the two was quite evident this evening when Advani and Gadkari were seated side by side at a party programme in Uttan near Mumbai but did not exchange a word.
Yashwant Sinha created a flutter this evening when he procured a nomination form and voters' list from Chief Electoral Officer, Thawar Chand Gehlot.
Earlier in the day, Mahesh Jethmalani, who yesterday threatened to contest against Gadkari, today claimed that he was denied a nomination form to prevent him.
A candidate for the BJP Presidential poll should have been an active member of the party for 12 consecutive years and an ordinary member for 15 years. He would also need at least 20 proposers each from five different state units, which adds up to 100.
Presidential election splits BJP as Yashwant Sinha jumps into fray while Jethmalani cries foul
Earlier in the evening, high drama unfolded in the BJP today on the eve of election of a new party president with Yashwant Sinha procuring a nomination form and Mahesh Jethmalani complaining he is being denied one even as Nitin Gadkari appeared set to get a second term.
Gadkari, who shared the stage at a party programme in Utan in Maharashtra with senior leader L K Advani, will reach the capital tonight. He will file his nomination papers tomorrow and is likely to be declared elected unopposed, party sources said.
Gadkari and Advani were not seen exchanging any word at the programme and the apparent cold vibes reflected the rift within the party on the incumbent getting a second term.
However, with the RSS still firmly backing Gadkari, he is likely to get another three years at the helm.
Sinha created a flutter this evening when he procured a nomination form and voters' list from Chief Electoral Officer, Thawar Chand Gehlot. Advani declined to anwser newsmen's questions as to whether Sinha, a former Union Minister, is in the race.
Confirming this, Gehlot said Sinha is the only person to have taken the form from him till now. However, he hastened to add that the forms are easily available on the party website and state headquarters of the BJP.
Earlier in the day, Mahesh Jethmalani said he is being denied a nomination form to prevent him from contesting.
Party veterans point out that despite all the pretense of an election of the BJP President, the stringent provisions of the party Constitution will make it difficult for the forms of Sinha and Jethmalani to be accepted.
A candidate for the BJP Presidential poll should have been an active member of the party for 12 consecutive years and an ordinary member for 15 years. He would also need at least 20 proposers each from five different state units, which adds upto 100.
While Mahesh Jethmalani fails to qualify, Sinha is unlikely to get 100 proposers from five states.
Asked by reporters about today's developments, Advani said, "I have nothing to say at this moment."
But there were murmurs within BJP about Advani and his team still being unhappy with Gadkari being given a second term in the wake of charges of dubious funding of the Purti Group with which he has been associated in the past.
The Income Tax authorities created some unease for Gadkari and his camp when they conducted on-field inquiries on some "shell" companies which had invested in Purti Power and Sugar Limited.
Gadkari came out with a prompt statement condemning these inquiries by the IT authorities as "calculated, mischievous and politically motivated". He described the "highly questionable move" as a "command performance at the behest of its political masters sitting in New Delhi who have hatched a political conspiracy to tarnish his image".
Interestingly, the statement said the IT department's action has taken place on the eve of Gadkari's "re-election as BJP President for a second term". The party issued a corrected version later when journalists drew its attention to this line.
The new version spoke of the action taking place on the eve of election of BJP President. Some maintained that the first version was not put inadvertently.
Gadkari said IT department's act "smacks of the ruling UPA's nefarious designs to create confusion in the BJP ranks".
He warned the UPA government against indulging in political vendetta against its opponents and said that such cheap gimmicks will not deviate him from fulfilling his commitment to serving the nation.
Sources close to Gadkari said his nomination form and the list of proposers is in order and he will file his papers tomorrow at the BJP headquarters.
Meanwhile, Purti Power and Sugar Limited also issued a statement saying the companies on which the Income Tax Department has conduced the "surveys" are not part of the Purti Group and have only invested in it. "Purti Group has nothing to do with the actions of IT department," Sudhir Dive, Managing Director of PPSL said.