Mr Nitin Gadkari is an uncommon politician. By his own admission he is a foodie, he wears chic clothes and seems to enjoy life. He enjoys speaking at public functions and he speaks as if he does not have a care in the world.
At the same time, he is a swayamsevak. He is believed to be a favourite of the RSS. He nurses his constituency, Nagpur (Maharashtra), and keeps the RSS, his party leaders and his party workers in good humour.
Mr Gadkari and Mr Devendra Fadnavis belong to Nagpur and draw their support from the same region and the same political base of leaders and workers. The talk in Maharashtra is that Mr Gadkari wanted to be chief minister of Maharashtra but Mr Narendra Modi scuppered the plan. Mr Modi chose
Mr Devendra Fadnavis, a loyalist. It was supposed to be a smart move to check Mr Gadkari’s ambitions, if any. However, the irrepressible Mr Gadkari has cut loose and carved out a path for himself.
Mr Gadkari is known for his focused attention to his portfolios — highways and road transport, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation. He has a mixed record of performance as a minister. Good in highway construction, hype about Ganga rejuvenation, underperformance in water resource development and woefully behind on irrigation projects.
Outside his office, he is blunt and forthright in his utterances. In March 2018, at a media-organised conclave, he said, “Media has in the past trapped us over the question of achche din. Please don’t misinterpret what I say. There is no such achche din… Achche din is a belief, if you believe, it is there.” Again in August 2018, when the agitations for reservation were gathering strength, he said, “Even if reservation is given, there are no jobs. Jobs in banks have shrunk because of technology. Government recruitment is frozen.” Many people suspected that Mr Gadkari’s target was not the agitators (for demanding reservation) but the Modi government (for its failure to create jobs).
In recent times, he has been creating minor storms by his cleverly crafted statements. The election results of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan gave Mr Gadkari a great opportunity. He didn’t mince words. He said, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan as, when there is success, there will be a race to take credit, but, in case of failure, everybody will start pointing fingers at each other.
Leadership should have the vrutti (inclination) to own up defeat and failures. Loyalty of the leadership towards the organisation will not be proven till the time it owns up responsibility for defeat.”
On Republic Day, 2019, he was more outspoken: “People like political leaders who show them dreams. But if those dreams are not fulfilled, the people will thrash these leaders.”
Preparing to Challenge
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the target was Mr Narendra Modi. If the BJP does not win an absolute majority or finds itself unable to form the government, it is believed that Mr Gadkari will challenge Mr Modi for the leadership of the party.
Earlier, Mr Gadkari had obliquely targeted Mr Amit Shah, the president of the BJP. Delivering the annual IB Endowment lecture on December 24, 2018, Mr Gadkari said, “If I am the party president and my MPs and MLAs are not doing well, then who is responsible? I am.” At the same event, he threw a challenge to the prime minister as well: “Tolerance is the biggest asset of the Indian system. You can’t win elections only because you speak well… you might be a vidwan (learned person) but people may not vote for you. One who thinks he knows everything is mistaken — people should refrain from artificial marketing.”
Mr Gadkari has said all that a dissident in the BJP could say or all that an Opposition politician would say. He has virtually called the prime minister a failed dream merchant and chided him for lacking in vrutti to own responsibility for defeat; he has accused the prime minister of being intolerant and one who indulges in artificial marketing. Strong words indeed from a Cabinet colleague!
Despite these utterances, the BJP leadership has not said a word in public. The RSS also has not rebuked Mr Gadkari. Presumably, everyone is baffled and not clear about how the situation should be handled. I suspect the hesitation to act is because the party leadership knows that there are many more leaders — especially MPs from Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — who are apprehensive about the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections and their own political future. In 2014, the BJP and its ally in UP (Apna Dal) won 135 of the 145 seats at stake in these four states. By any calculation, the BJP is poised to lose at least 80 of those 135 seats. That is the outcome that Mr Gadkari and his supporters would devoutly wish for. The murmurs are growing louder every day and that should be music to Mr Gadkari and his merry band of followers!
More and more voices (the latest is Mr Ram Vilas Paswan) are predicting that the BJP’s individual tally in the elections may slide from the 2014-high of 282. As the slide continues, you can be certain that the frequency of Gadkari gems will rise!