What is Nitin Gadkari up to? His recent statements have caught public attention, and left observers searching for a political explanation.
Speaking in Pune on December 23, the former BJP party president and current Union minister said, “Leadership should have the vrutti (tendency) to own up the defeat and failures. Loyalty of the leadership towards the organisation will not be proved till the time it owns up responsibility for defeat.” This was less than two weeks after the saffron party had been routed in assembly polls in three states of the Hindi heartland.
He added that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” while saying that the “leadership” should own up to both.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are believed to be pulling all the strings in the party, Gadkari’s statements seem to be direct attacks on the duo.
It has been rare, in the last few years, for any leader in the BJP – once known for its vigorous internal democratic culture – to voice criticism of the Modi-Shah team.
Gadkari soon clarified that his statement was twisted by opposition parties and “a section of the media” to “create a wedge” between him and the BJP leadership.
Two days later, however, he seemed to reiterate his initial comment. In reply to a question at an event in New Delhi, Gadkari said: “If I am the party president, and my MPs and MLAs are not doing well, then who is responsible? I am.”
With his second statement against the leadership in less than a week, he has left little to the imagination. Over the last four years, the BJP’s serial electoral successes were credited to Modi’s leadership and Shah’s masterful strategy. The duo were happy to accept the credit. Not once did Shah missed an opportunity to address the press on the day of BJP’s electoral victory in states.
On December 11, however, Shah skipped the press meet – and stayed conspicuously out of sight for three days, until the Supreme Court’s judgement on petitions relating to the Rafale deal.
The saffron party in the past prided itself on its horizontal set-up, in which multiple leaders held equal influence. It was one way it differentiated itself from the Congress, which the Gandhi family has dominated for 50 years.
This changed under the sway of Modi and Shah. Older leaders of the BJP, most of them now relegated to the Margdarshak Mandal – now mocked as an “old-age home” – are visibly unhappy. That Modi and Shah’s opinions are dominant, and mutually interchangeable, meant there is little diversity of opinion left in the party.
Who better than Gadkari to bell the cat? As party president, he shared a less-than-cordial equation with Modi: Gadkari was said to have supported Modi’s bitter rival, Sanjay Joshi, when Modi wanted him out of the national executive. Since 2014, they have largely stayed off each others’ turf.
In September, The Wire reported that Gadkari may have been forced to cancel a trip to the World Hindu Congress in Chicago after the prime minister objected.
In October, the Union minister ran into a controversy when he said that BJP rode to power by making “tall promises” – another dig at Modi who made those promises.
Of all the BJP ministers, the Nagpur MP is considered the closest to the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP. Gadkari’s association with the RSS long precedes his entry into politics.
Not surprisingly, the RSS appears to back the minister. Or, many would say, Gadkari is only articulating what many in the RSS believe. A mid-level RSS ideologue who did not want to be named told The Wire, “I disagree with the interpretation that Gadkari was taking a dig at Amit Shah. But I, and many others, believe that the leadership should own up to defeats.”
“The BJP’s cadres are demoralised after the losses in the three states,” the RSS leader added. “This is also the time to rope in all other leaders in decision-making, seek help from experienced leaders. The Sangh has always advocated internal democracy in political parties. And that differentiates a political party from a private company.”
Since the party’s triple-loss this month, an old topic has had a new lease of life in Delhi’s political durbar. What happens if the BJP does not win a majority on its own in the 2019 general elections? Even the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, predicted a hung house in 2019. The BJP, the Organiser said, could lose anywhere between 50 and 100 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Gadkari has emerged at a leading contender to replace Modi in this eventuality. He is the more acceptable face for other constituents of National Democratic Alliance. NDA allies have expressed growing resentment about the prime minister and the party president, fueling speculation that they may push for a more pliable leader to take the prime minister’s chair.
Many say Gadkari has only thrown a stone at the glass wall Modi and Shah have built around them. More leaders may follow suit in the months to come.