NEW DELHI: The first serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership from within the Bharatiya Janata party has come through the cricket controversy wherein his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has been placed effectively in the dock over alleged irregularities during his tenure in the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA).

More so, as the opposition to the Finance Minister is from within the BJP and comes just weeks before the budget session of Parliament. PM Modi is thus, left without the option of silence with initial efforts to silence dissenters from within having failed completely.

The salvo first fired against Jaitley by the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, followed by the Congress party, has been picked up by BJP leader Kirti Azad who has revived an old angst---reflected in the over 200 letters he claims to have written on the issue---of corruption and scam riddling the DDCA. Of particular significance is the fact that despite two visits by BJP president Amit Shah, whose hold over the party was considered “iron” before the Bihar polls, Azad refused to toe the party line and went ahead with the press conference against Jaitley.

Subsequently the BJPs old guard, all leaders with considerable clout, have rallied around Azad with his ‘supporters’ against the Finance Minister reflecting a strong line up. Azad’s first open support from within the BJP came from Bihar leader Shatrughan Sinha who was openly critical of the party’s strategy for the Bihar polls. He was sidelined by Shah, and while clearly angry about this, had insisted that the party was pursuing defeat by not declaring the chief minister candidate at that point in time. Sinha has now endorsed Azad’s allegations against Jaitley from within the party.

Subramanian Swamy, the maverick who swings faster than a pendulum at times, is supporting Azad as well and has wondered why the party has suspended him for a cricket issue. He has come out in full support for Azad. Quieter support has been extended by those who matter more in the party organisation such as LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Murli Manohar Joshi and the old guard who were approached by Azad and have promised to take up the issue of his suspension in the party. It is thus, clear that the next BJP meeting will not be easy and peaceful, unless this issue is somehow resolved amicably before by Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose direct intervention is becoming necessary. Silence will clearly not work.

The scales are getting heavier by the day against the Finance Minister whose blogs and public posts do not seem to be drawing much support within the party. Another formidable foe who has emerged now is BJPs Ram Jethmalani who has decided to defend Delhi CM Kejriwal against the defamation charges filed against him by Jaitley. Jethmalani, known for his blunt speech, told reporters, “I don’t make a secret of the fact that I don’t like Arun Jaitley.” He went on to remind the scribes that "Mr LK Advani had Ram Jethmalani (as his lawyer). Now Arun Jaitley is to be prosecuted by me. You take it.”This was in response to a question on PM Modi’s reference to Advani’s hawala case in 1996. in response whether he had been asked by the BJPnot to take up Keriwal’s case, the incorrigible Jethmalani said, “what the hell do i care for the BJP. At the instance of Arun Jaitley and his coterie, I was expelled from the party. In spite of that, I helped PM Modi come to power."

Jaitley has angered a large section of the BJP, being accused of ‘plotting’ against individuals behind their backs. Right or wrong, this does perception seems to be working against him now. BJP sources claim that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is also not particularly fond of the Finance Minister, and has been working for a while now to get a more favoured candidate into this post. This is seen as one of the reasons for the constant grapevine buzz---even before Bihar---that Jaitley was going to be replaced as Finance Minister. There was no specific reason just a ‘he will be moved to another Ministry’ speculation in political (read BJP) circles.

PM Modi has no choice currently but to defend Jaitley. For two basic reasons. One, he has no one else in the government who knows the functioning of the government and Parliament, and has the skills to manage the media and the judiciary with considerable ease. Jaitley is a suave, articulate politician with more knowledge of the daily working of government and its various arms than most in the Cabinet put together.

And two, perhaps of increasing importance now, is that the attack on the Finance Minister is basically an attack on the Prime Minister. And by agreeing to remove him, PM Modi will be opening his flanks far before time. And on the eve of crucial elections in the states beginning next year. The combined onslaught of the opposition and influential sections within the BJP on the Finance Minister, on the eve of the budget session of Parliament beginning February, does not bode well for any government in power. It is almost certain that unless remedial action is taken, the budget session will open to chaos.

It is thus, a Hobsons choice at the end of the year for PM Modi who is currently away on an over Christmas visit to Russia, and now Afghanistan.He can continue supporting his Finance Minister and thereby create chaos for the government in the new year, as even if Azad is won over, the opposition is not going to bite dust.

Or conversely to sacrifice the Finance Minister, in which case he will just buy time until the next time. In that the old guard and others in the BJP will have tasted blood, and will use their ‘strength’ to corner the PM and faulting Ministers again. Besides Amit Shah does not have the control over the party post Bihar that he once enjoyed and according to sources, he is feeling the pressure as well.

Of course the first effort will be to woo the rebels, and Azad has already said that he will be meeting PM Modi on the issue. It is clear that the strategy of the ‘dissidents’ in not to war with the Prime Minister who still remains the BJP’s most powerful and attractive magnet, but to ensure that no opportunity is lost to expose chinks in the armour of those around him.

2016 thus is set to open on a note, where even in the ‘kiss and make up’ scenario the government will have to tighten its armour for more body blows from within.