Note: This article was first published on January 7, 2019 and republished on April 11, 2019, the day of voting in the Nagpur constituency where Gadkari is contesting from.
Nitin Gadkari is in the news, making speeches laced with apparent innuendo against the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership and even, if one reads between the lines, against Narendra Modi. He first said that the boss of a political party should take the blame if the party performs poorly in the elections. This was interpreted as a dig at Amit Shah – the alleged Chanakya of the BJP – whose strategies are held up as the reason why the party has done well in elections. After the losses in three Hindi belt states, that reputation has been dented severely.
Of course, Gadkari, the faithful party soldier, angrily denied ever meaning that, but no one believes him.
Now he has praised Indira Gandhi for being a strong leader who reached the top without recourse to any special reservation for women. He also similarly praised Sushma Swaraj and other women politicians, but the Indira Gandhi remark has been singled out by headline writers; this apparently signifies praise for a Congress leader. That the RSS has always had a soft corner for Gandhi or that this merely reiterates the party’s stand against women’s reservation – or any kind of reservation – is discarded; what is noticed is the very mention of Indira Gandhi, who belongs to the much-reviled Nehru-Gandhi family.
That Modi does not like Gadkari is a fairly well-known secret. Stories abound about how the Maharashtra politician feels slighted by the Modi-Shah combine. He feels his wings have been curtailed and an instance of how he was not given permission by the PMO to travel abroad for a media conference is often cited. Even if that is a rumour, it is now official that Gadkari has not been named in the crucial committee to prepare the party’s manifesto for 2019.
Gadkari has denied that he is a hopeful for the prime minister’s post should the BJP not get a full majority, but pundits have speculated that the RSS will back their fellow Nagpur resident because they too have problems with Modi; besides, Gadkari is seen as more affable and collegial, who maintains good relations with politicians from other parties, vital in a coalition government. For many NDA allies, he may be a more ‘acceptable’ face. Allies like the Shiv Sena are fully supportive of Gadkari.
This prospect appears to have been welcomed by many for whom ‘Anyone But Modi’ is almost like a mantra. The possibility that Modi and Shah, who have dominated the political narrative for the past nearly five years, will no longer be in power is a welcome one for even those who are otherwise not BJP or Sangh inclined. Gadkari is getting top billing in the media of late and will undoubtedly get even more media play over the next few months. An otherwise lightweight politician, he is now being seen as a welcome alternative to a man who has much more political heft and weight, to say nothing of smarts.
Quite apart from Gadkari’s easy-going persona and conviviality, he has one quality that makes him an attractive candidate – he is not Rahul Gandhi. Young Gandhi has rattled the Sangh establishment enough to make it worry about the outcome of the elections. Even if Rahul Gandhi does not become the prime minister, he could, along with well-chosen allies, cut down the number of seats that the BJP wins. Not only has the Congress done well, overthrowing the BJP in three crucial states and keeping it out of the government in Karnataka, Gandhi has shown nimbleness in sewing up partnerships.
Senior regional leaders – with their own agendas, admittedly – have gravitated towards him. He has affected a reconciliation between the seniors and the youngsters in his own party. He runs a smart social media and offline campaign. And his pointed barbs have begun to hurt. The unthinkable may yet happen – the BJP could do poorly enough to not come back to power. Elections have a way of throwing up some shock results; for the Sangh parivar and the BJP – and especially for Narendra Modi – that would be intolerable.
Gadkari’s rising profile must be seen in that context. He takes away attention from Gandhi and ensures that discussions continue to centre around the BJP. For those who cannot even contemplate Rahul Gandhi – or worse, any of the regional leaders as the putative prime minister – and are disappointed with Modi, Gadkari is the soft and cuddly face of the BJP, a less angular version of a man who has not been able to give the economy the boost it so badly needed.
The trader community, traditional supporters of the Sangh for generations, are frustrated with GST, the upper castes are alienated (Gadkari happens to be a Brahmin) and Sangh rank and file are deeply unhappy with Amit Shah’s roughshod style of functioning. Senior leaders at the central and state level think they are not given the respect, or even a hearing, under the Modi-Shah combine. They want Modi-Shah to go but, equally, they would prefer Anything But Rahul.
The critical questions to ask, however, are: Gadkari may not be Modi in his bedside manners, but will he be any different in promoting the Sangh agenda? Do we know where he stands on lynchings, on minority rights and on the larger Hindutva plank? Will a Gadkari-led government stop the takeover of institutions and try and not control education?
We don’t have complete clarity on these issues, but we can make an informed guess. The Sangh is not likely to give up its core programmes – it just wants to replace the hard face with a softer mukhota. There are others available within the ranks, senior leaders with a less abrasive profile than Modi’s – Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, even Shivraj Singh Chauhan – but each one is wanting from the Sangh point of view. Gadkari works on many levels.
The Modi-Shah combine is not going to walk away anytime soon. Narendra Modi still retains a tremendous following within the BJP and from voters. No other political leader measures up to his popularity or for that matter oratory, least of all Nitin Gadkari. The duo will make sure Gadkari does not get above himself and will ensure that he gets stymied.
Gadkari himself gives the impression of being a reluctant bride, rushing to deny any ambition for the top job. His so-called challenge may soon fizzle out. But for the time being, his name is acting as a diversionary tactic, making the BJP still look like the best party to rule India.