How Soft-Spoken J.P. Nadda Found His Way to BJP's Top Post, Despite His Tainted Record

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are backing Nadda precisely because he does not have a strong public personality.

New Delhi: Prior to Narendra Modi’s rise in the Bharatiya Janata Party, not many outside the state of Himachal Pradesh knew who J.P. Nadda was. His tenure as Union health minister during Modi’s first term as prime minister can hardly be called eventful.

The only prominent announcement to come out of his ministry was the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, a federal health insurance policy for the poor that his ministry oversaw. However, as the prime minister himself hogged all the limelight for the much-touted scheme, Nadda was forced out of the public glare.

In June 2019, when the demure, soft-spoken and media-shy Nadda took over the reins of the BJP as “working president” soon after the newly-anointed Union home minister Amit Shah relinquished active control as  actual president – as part of the saffron party’s ‘one person, one post’ doctrine – Sangh insiders felt that the so-called regime change was barely of any significance.

Nadda isn’t considered a match for Shah at all. With Shah’s aggressive, action-packed stint of nearly six years as the precedent, most political observers feel Nadda’s current reputation as the most trusted lieutenant of the Modi-Shah duo, more than any other qualitative aspect, earned him the coveted position that at a different time and age would have befitted a host of BJP heavyweights.

A transformed BJP

On Monday, Jagat Prakash Nadda finally got rid of that odd prefix “working” and was elected unopposed as the official full-time president of the BJP. He joined the line-up of Sangh parivar’s top leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kushabhau Thakre and others.

Yet Nadda is likely to remain in the shadows of the Modi-Shah duo in the days to come. As working president, he addressed BJP workers across the country quite frequently, inaugurated multiple events, worked behind the scenes to expand and organise the party, and braved electoral reverses in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Haryana. But he still managed to evade scrutiny, with the domineering presence of Shah around.

In fact, the BJP’s transformation as a well-oiled, highly centralised machinery under the leadership of Modi and Shah has somewhat robbed the the position of party president of its earlier clout and grandeur.

Under the duo’s control, the saffron party has consistently chosen to reward low-profile, conformist leaders, and sideline men and women with their own individual clout or presence. For instance, Vijay Rupani was selected to lead the Gujarat government instead of the more popular and feisty Saurabh Patel. Indeed, the elevation of lesser-known state leaders like Raghubar Das, Devendra Fadnavis or Manohar Lal Khattar to the chief ministers’ positions in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Haryana in 2014  began the pattern.

At the same time, state-level stalwarts of the party like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia or Raman Singh no longer feature in the BJP’s list of prominent leaders, even as veteran stalwarts like Rajnath Singh or Nitin Gadkari – both former party presidents – remain contained within their respective ministries.

So much has been Modi-Shah’s dominance both in party and government, that the thin line between the two has never been this blurred.

Within this political scheme, Nadda fits the BJP’s idea of representation, however tokenistic one may argue it is, very well. The party turned the socially-inclusive appointments of Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as president of India and OBC leader Venkaiah Naidu as the vice-president of the country, along with Modi’s own backward class identity, into a decisive electoral advantage.

Nadda, a Brahmin leader, as the president of BJP is the new element in the same representational matrix – an assurance to its core voter base that the party hasn’t entirely moved away from its traditional upper-caste characteristics.

Nadda’s journey through the party

In his first speech as president, Nadda spoke about how the BJP is the only party in which a commoner like him from Himachal Pradesh could rise through the ranks to the top. However, those familiar with BJP’s functioning would know that there is a qualitative difference between his appointment and that of his predecessors.

Given the current state of affairs in the party, the reserved Nadda was tactical enough to turn his disadvantage into a blessing. He has in fact risen through the ranks in the BJP because of his extraordinary consistency in remaining out of the public view.

Nadda, now 59, was born in Bihar where he studied until college. At Patna University, he associated himself with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students’ wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He gained prominence in the anti-corruption JP movement and was elected as secretary of the students’ union in the 1977 polls.

After having decided to shift his base to his home state, he went on to lead the students’ union of the Himachal Pradesh University as a law student, after having defeated the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-backed Students Federation of India (SFI) for the first time in 1984.

He held leadership positions in the ABVP and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha until 1993, when as a 33-year-old he first contested and won a seat in the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh. He repeated his wins in the Bilaspur constituency in 1998 and 2007, and held ministries in two BJP governments in the state.

Gradually, he emerged as the prime rival of chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal; however, in 2010 Nadda resigned as a minister over differences with the chief minister.

His national innings started when the then BJP president Nitin Gadkari brought him to New Delhi first as the national general secretary of the party and then getting him elected as a Rajya Sabha MP in 2012. Since then, he has worked his way up to Modi-Shah’s good books. It is said that he played an important role in the BJP’s huge electoral successes in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary polls.

At the organisational level, his growth has been astounding; however, the same can’t be said about his ministerial stints. He replaced Harsh Vardhan as the cabinet minister for health and family welfare in 2014 and continued in that role until 2019.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and J.P. Nadda at the BJP headquarters on Monday. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

A tainted record

While his tenure was largely lacklustre, it wasn’t free of blemishes.

Nadda was accused of covering up multiple corruption scams worth Rs 7,000 crore in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) during his stint as Union health minister. The most notable controversy was when media reports claimed that Nadda attempted to hush up the Central Bureau of Investigation investigation into a Rs 3,700 crore corruption scam related to engineering tenders at AIIMS.

Opposition parties, especially the Aam Aadmi Party, accused him of shielding the prime accused, Vineet Chaudhary, the then AIIMS deputy director who as a Himachal Pradesh cadre IAS officer had worked closely with Nadda.

Nadda had reportedly written several letters between May 2013 to June 2014 to his predecessor in the health ministry to drop cases against Chaudhary. He also wanted the removal of Indian Forest Service officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi, who as the then chief vigilance officer of AIIMS, blew the whistle on at least 200 corruption cases during his deputation at AIIMS since 2012.

Chaturvedi had by then earned a reputation of being brutally honest – something that the health ministry acknowledged repeatedly in his appraisal reports. Yet, soon after Modi came to power, he was relieved from his role as the CVO, AIIMS in August, 2014, although he continued to be at AIIMS.

Later, when Nadda replaced Harsh Vardhan, he allegedly not only tried to cover up the case against Chaudhary but also multiple other such corruption scams exposed by Chaturvedi – one of them being a scam related to purchase of medical paraphernalia in which the then AIIMS director M.C. Mishra was the primary accused.

When Nadda became health minister in November 2014, he attempted to reevaluate Chaturvedi’s appraisal report, which had described his performance as “outstanding”. When challenged by Chaturvedi, the Central Administrative Tribunal prevented Nadda from doing any such thing.

A year later, Nadda’s ministry was slammed by the parliamentary standing committee for not taking any action on corruption scams at AIIMS. By December 2015, however, the health ministry took away the work assigned to Chaturvedi without mentioning any specific reason, although he was being paid a full salary. Meanwhile, all investigations in the corruption cases exposed by him were also canned.

Nadda’s elevation as BJP party president indicates that Modi and Shah are willing to overlook such a tainted track record in a leader, as long as he proves himself to be a committed foot soldier in their scheme of expansion.

The new BJP party president ticks those boxes well. Rajan Pandey, an election analyst who has extensively toured Himachal Pradesh, had an interesting anecdote to share. “For a long time, Dhumal’s son and also Nadda’s rival Anurag Thakur was lobbying with the Centre to get an AIIMS facility in Hamirpur, his seat. However, Nadda swiftly got the Modi government to open the facility at Bilaspur, his old assembly constituency. This deepened the rift between the two leaders. Many thought that it could affect the BJP’s prospects in the state.”

“But Nadda not only openly supported Thakur’s candidature in the Lok Sabha polls but campaigned extensively for him. He even got those MLAs who are seen on his side to campaign for Thakur,” Pandey said.

Nadda’s understated organisational skills have finally helped him land the top party post, while Thakur, who has never hesitated to show his ambitious side, has apparently been sidelined. With the Delhi assembly elections lurking around the corner and the Bihar assembly elections due later this year, the new BJP president has his task cut out. Yet, the road ahead for Nadda may not be as easy as it had been for him in the party until now.