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Is Nitin Gadkari the Next Face of the BJP?

By Arati R Jerath

He was the only one who asked for and got the ministry of his choice, the prized money spinner infrastructure department of road transport and highways. In sharp contrast to the centralised command and control system imposed on others, Gadkari had unfettered independence in decision making. And he was one of the few ministers who spoke up in Cabinet meetings while others sat in silent deference to the prime minister.

The reason for his unique status was also well known.

Gadkari was, and continues to be, the favourite son of the BJP’s friend, philosopher, guide and unstated boss, the RSS. He is particularly close to the organisation’s chief Mohan Bhagwat, with whom he enjoys not just a working relationship but a deep personal and familial bond.

In fact, it is whispered in BJP circles that Gadkari is the Sangh’s reserve choice for prime minister and may have even been projected in 2014 had Modi not run an intensive and successful campaign to establish his credentials as the lead vote catcher for the saffron parivar.

It’s not surprising then that the present dispensation has been dogged from the very beginning by shadow power play between Gadkari and Modi. And now that Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah are on the backfoot after shock defeats in three crucial Hindi heartland states, the silent tussle is out in the open.

Gadkari may cry himself hoarse that his recent barbs at the Modi-Shah duo, asking for them to take responsibility for the BJP’s defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, were misquoted or torn out of context. But no-one in the BJP is in any doubt that internal jostling for 2019 has begun. Gadkari could well emerge as the rallying point for dissidents in the party, Nagpur’s secret tool to clip the Big Two’s wings or even a consensus choice for PM if the BJP fails to get a majority and has to rely on allies to cobble together a coalition government after the Lok Sabha election.

Those who keep a close watch on the personal dynamics between important government leaders say that tensions between Modi and Gadkari have increased in recent months. They link the rise to reports about Modi’s declining brand value and growing perceptions that the BJP will see a drastic fall in numbers in 2019 because of all round economic distress, both rural and urban.

They say that Gadkari has been chaffing at the bit because of what he perceives as attempts by the PMO to invade his turf and as 2019 nears, chip away at his image as the minister who delivers. For instance, he has been finding it difficult to get funds released for his road projects, resulting in unforeseen delays and other troubles.

Some months ago, the PMO suddenly demanded a review report from his ministry on the progress of road construction in Haryana and Rajasthan. The demand came in the morning with an evening deadline for submission. According to sources familiar with developments, an upset Gadkari ordered his ministry to charter two helicopters so that he and senior officials could do an aerial survey to fill in the blanks and prepare the report the same day.

Perhaps the most public snub to Gadkari came when he was denied permission to leave India to attend the World Hindu Congress 2018 in Chicago in September. This was a high profile event addressed by Mohan Bhagwat. It would have given Gadkari an opportunity to build an international profile with Hindus outside India in the company of the RSS chief. The ostensible reason for the refusal was the BJP National Executive Meet scheduled around the same time but Gadkari was reported to have been extremely upset, especially since the Chicago event was planned long before the BJP gathering.

BJP leaders speaking on the condition of anonymity admit that Gadkari has struck a chord with many in the party with his recent jibes against the top brass. While he has laughed off his comments, those loyal to Modi and Shah wonder why he chose to speak about the election results at conferences that had nothing to do with politics.

His first salvo that “leadership should own up to failures’’ was fired while addressing bank employees in Pune. His next shot came at the Intelligence Bureau Annual Endowment Lecture in which he took direct aim at Shah. He was asked about the performance of IAS and IPS officials and embedded in his long winded answer was this gem: “…..but if I am the party president and my MLAs are not doing well, my MPs don’t perform, then who is responsible? What have I done to groom them?’’

Within the BJP, the biggest significance of Gadkari’s remarks is the silence from Nagpur. Not one of the RSS top leaders has set the record straight on the controversy, giving the impression that the minister may have the silent blessings of the Sangh.

The game being played out will unfold itself in the coming weeks as the countdown to the 2019 polls begins. But Gadkari has certainly set the cat among the pigeons.