In a sudden and dramatic last-minute twist, Nitin Gadkari, facing allegations of dubious funding of his company, was 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 on Wednesday, 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.
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 when he procured a nomination form and voters' list from Chief Electoral Officer, Thawar Chand Gehlot.
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 atleast 20 proposers each from five different state units, which adds upto 100.
Gadkari said the allegations against him were aimed at "maligning" the image of his party.
"I will continue to serve the party as a committed worker. I don't want allegations against me to affect the party adversely," he told reporters at Mumbai airport before leaving for Delhi.
"There are allegations against me and I want to come clean. I will tackle these charges both politically and legally. The decision to opt out (of BJP President's race) is entirely my own," Gadkari maintained.
"I am ready to face any inquiry. I have informed my party that I won't take any post till I am proved innocent. I will extend my full cooperation to whosoever becomes the next BJP President."
Maharashtra BJP President Sudhir Mungantiwar, who accompanied his outgoing chief, said Gadkari was quitting because the allegations were aimed at "defaming" the party.
He described reports about senior BJP leader L K Advani's opposition to Gadkari's candidature as "rumours".
Meanwhile, MNS chief Raj Thackeray, who enjoys cordial relations with Gadkari, described him as an "honest person".
"Gadkari is an honest person. But the fact is that Delhi leaders are allergic to Marathi people," he said.
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