Union Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nitin Gadkari’s string of recent vexed statements show Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s worries are multiplying as the Lok Sabha polls draw closer — not just on the external front but internally as well.
In the last week, Gadkari, who holds plum portfolios in the Modi government like the Transport and Highways Ministry, among others, has made cloaked yet revealing taunts at the BJP’s top leadership.
BJP sources said these indicate a slight tilt in scales, where, unlike in the run-up to 2014 or even until a year ago, a section of the party feels that a challenge can be mounted to the Modi-Shah leadership.
The party recently lost three key states in the Hindi heartland to the Congress. It also performed poorly in bypolls earlier, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.The Modi government has also spent a significant time firefighting on several fronts recently. Even its allies, like the Shiv Sena, have flexed muscles.
Put together, all these have taken some of the sheen off the Modi-Shah leadership.
What Gadkari said
On Monday, while delivering the annual endowment lecture to the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Gadkari said, “If I am the party president and my MPs and MLAs are not doing well, then who is responsible? I am.”
The remark, seemingly directed at Shah, came barely days after the minister’s comment that “leadership should own up to defeat and failures”, which he later sought to clarify as having been “twisted”.
At the IB event, Gadkari also said he liked the speeches of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru — a jarring comment by a senior leader of a party that is trying to put the Nehru-Gandhi legacy in the backseat and put forth its own ‘heroes’.
At a time when the party is being accused of fostering a culture of intolerance in the country, Gadkari said “tolerance is the biggest asset of the Indian system”.
“You can’t win elections only because you speak well. You might be a vidwan (learned) but people may not vote for you,” said Gadkari.
He added, “One who thinks he knows everything is mistaken — people should refrain from artificial marketing.”
Last week too, the minister said that some people in the party should talk less.
Known to be close to the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), Gadkari was BJP chief from 2009 to 2013, the party’s youngest ever president. However, he was forced to resign when charges of financial irregularities emerged against him and daggers were drawn out by several quarters of the party.
An astute politician, with an image of being a pragmatic leader, many in the party believe Gadkari’s statements are not a result of mere arbitrariness but part of a thought-out paradigm. More so, given the fact that the minister has repeatedly made controversial remarks in the last week, even after issuing clarifications.
“With electoral losses and several other damaging incidents, a section in the BJP believes the Modi-Shah leadership can be questioned. Even allies have started throwing their weight around, which has further emboldened this section,” said a highly placed source in the party who did not wish to be identified.
“Gadkari’s remarks are very much part of this. He is too experienced to make random statements,” added the source.
Modi still remains the most popular and powerful face of the BJP and the modus operandi of his detractors in the party may not be about dislodging him, but drawing attention to his weakened leadership.
Some in the party believe the push to Gadkari isn’t just internal, but also external.
“There is also a section outside the party which does not want to see Modi as prime minister again, and even they are propping up Gadkari. For them, this helps show there is even internal opposition to Modi-Shah,” said another leader on condition of anonymity.
Gadkari and Modi have had a chequered relationship and do not come without their share of troubled history.
In 2012, for instance, Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, was at loggerheads with then party president Gadkari over his bete noire Sanjay Joshi. Modi wanted Joshi to be removed from the party’s powerful national executive.
Modi threatened to stay away from the May 2012 national executive meet, and agreed to attend it only after Gadkari bowed to his wishes and asked Joshi to step down.
In the previous national executive meet in New Delhi in September 2011, Modi had snubbed the party’s top leadership by not attending.
Given the baggage of the past, Gadkari’s own ambitions as well as recent factors dampening the unassailable image of the Modi-Shah leadership, the minister’s slew of recent remarks reveal more than they actually state.