Union minister Nitin Gadkari is hopping mad at the media.
“The media is left with absolutely no integrity,” he told this correspondent last week while flatly denying he had said any of the things attributed to him in the past couple of weeks. “They put words in my mouth over my Pune speech [wherein he is supposed to have said ‘success has many fathers and failure is an orphan’]. And my Delhi address was taken out of context [he was reported as saying ‘if he were party president, he would have to be held responsible for the bad performance of his MPs and MLAs’].”
Be that as it may, those comments are now being interpreted as the bugle of revolt against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – not just by political rivals or the media but also by a whole section of the BJP, who adore Gadkari from his days as party president. They are chafing at the tight grip of the Modi-Shah duo on the party and their refusal to allow any party man room for basic dissent or even simple disagreement.
Gadkari may be protesting too much. He could not have made those comments without the backing of the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the confidence that they would back him up in the event of a fallout with the party leadership. Although the minister is wary of being asked if he is bidding for the prime minister’s post in 2019, Dilip Deodhar, an RSS ideologue, told this correspondent he has warned Gadkari that his caste (Brahmin) is all wrong for the job of prime minister. “The RSS still needs an OBC to weave the larger community of Hindus together at the next elections and Modi continues to be their best bet in this regard.”
Even so, sources say recent events have shown that Modi may not have the complete backing of the RSS, whose leadership has been upset at his dictatorial, winner-takes-all style. Mohan Bhagwat had warned recently that the Sangh will not support any particular party in the next elections. “Since its inception, RSS has kept itself aloof from the party politics and the politics influenced by castes and creeds and will continue to do so,” the RSS chief said.
The leadership may be using the more-amenable Gadkari – a Nagpur politician whose proximity to the RSS is well-known – to divide and rule the BJP. During the recent elections to the Hindi heartland states, the party did not have the full support of the pracharaks as it did in 2014. The BJP’s defeat in these states is being attributed to the withdrawal of that support and Gadkari’s statements are now seen by pracharaks on the ground as confirmation and reaffirmation of Mohan Bhagwat’s earlier statement that the RSS will not work for any political party in 2019.
Gadkari’s seeming rebellion, his protestations notwithstanding, now reinforces that fact but also sends out the message that this time Modi is truly on his own. However, the pracharaks can nonetheless look to Gadkari and the RSS to pick and choose the candidates they will work for and ensure their victories.
According to one such pracharak, there is a feeling within not just the RSS top brass but also among its grassroots workers that the Modi-Shah duo has unduly cashed in on their hard work and never acknowledged anyone else’s contribution, taking all the credit for themselves. Perhaps that is why the comment that party leaders should learn to accept failures as well as successes.
When the RSS supported Modi in 2014, even they did not believe the BJP could reach an absolute majority on its own. “ We had thought 210-230 (seats) at the most, the rest would come from allies,” said one RSS ideologue.
This time they will be happy to settle for less than 200 for only the drastically reduced majority will cut Modi down to size and help the RSS contain their high-flying pracharak-turned-most inaccessible prime minister of all times – a man who has been not just trying to rid India of the Congress but also, subtly, of the RSS even if he is in tune with their ideology.
Gadkari is very important to those plans for he is an amiable, amenable man, networked with many other political parties and an old-fashioned politician who does not believe political rivals should be sworn enemies. He is said to be building bridges with many opposition parties, including former NDA and UPA allies, for just such an eventuality in 2019.
With Sushma Swaraj ostensibly out of the race, Arun Jaitley unlikely to win a popular election, L.K. Advani too old for the office (in any case neither of them is popular with the RSS) and Manohar Parrikar, another RSS favourite, seriously ailing, the Sangh is left with only two options – Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari– who they can trust to head the parliamentary party in 2019 and not get above themselves as Modi-Shah have done.
However, with Gadkari denying he ever said the things attributed to him, where does that leave things for Modi and Shah? Continuing to be suspicious of both the RSS and its blue-eyed boy, Modi has not been on talking terms with Gadkari for months now and Shah treats the former president of the BJP little better than an ordinary party worker. That relations between the two sides are at rock bottom is one of the worst-kept secrets in political circles. If Gadkari is resentful, he has not let it show and even after making these remarks, which have shown him as a potential rebel, he has tried his best to smoothen things in public.
His supporters privately claim that the Modi-Shah combine will work to get Gadkari defeated in Nagpur, thus finishing off the possible threat after the elections. It may be somewhat fanciful, but it indicates the deepening mistrust in the Gadkari camp. The rift between the two sides – Modi-Shah on one and Gadkari, possibly backed by the RSS on the other – is now a reality. Whether Gadkari has the strength, the heft or the willingness to stand up to the duo remains to be seen.
Sujata Anandan is an author and journalist based in Mumbai.