On the evening of May 11, 55-year-old Nitin Gadkari turned to his office-bearers at 11, Ashok Road, the nondescript headquarters of BJP, with a poser: why have we all become sulking, dukhi atmas (sad souls)? “Can’t we perform karma (action) in nishkamya bhava (desiring no fruits)? Ultimately, everyone gets what is in his kismet (destiny), no matter how much he tries, isn’t it? This is a million-dollar question. I have no answer. I do not clamour for anything... and I am just doing a task given to me.”
As outsider to Delhi’s pace and style of politics, Gadkari is known to deliver such homilies. But what surprised everyone was that Gadkari did not go unchallenged.
Leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, who has never hidden her ire at him for his actions as BJP chief, said, “It’s good to act without seeking fruits. But one must first do the right karma before leaving it to destiny.”
As BJP leaders including Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and MM Joshi watched 59-year-old Swaraj, other office-bearers could not help thinking that, perhaps, there was no better example of what was going on in their party — than the spectacle before them.
Interestingly, it was in this meeting that other leaders were told an amendment would be made to BJP’s constitution to remove the bar on Gadkari seeking election for a second three-year term — in line with the RSS’ decision that he should continue in office after his first three-year term ends in 2012.
Only last month, some BJP leaders including Yashwant Sinha had openly criticised Gadkari at BJP MPs’ meet for denying a Rajya Sabha ticket to SS Ahluwalia and letting lobbyists like London-based Anshuman Mishra “buy” votes for a seat. Gadkari was forced to backtrack. It is another story that Ahluwalia got to fight as a BJP candidate but lost as the party could not muster support. That episode showed the opposition to Gadkari’s style of functioning and also caused resentment.
Gadkari was brought in as BJP chief in December 2010 by the RSS because Delhi’s “G4”, which includes Swaraj, Rajnath Singh (who preceded Gadkari), Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu, could not agree on a successor.
Gadkari set about trying to put the house in order but soon realised that he could move forward only if “things were done” his way. In the process, he ruffled too many feathers and bumbled from one crisis to another as the infighting intensified.
“When no one wants to do anything, and I have to do something, others resent everything anyone does,” Gadkari is heard lamenting, admitting his “unconventional” approach might have bruised egos.
Senior BJP patriarch LK Advani feels his role was clipped by the RSS after the 2009 debacle. Advani’s role has diminished since then and the RSS forced him to hand over the baton in Parliament to Swaraj and Jaitley.
Advani feels he can do little to salvage the situation. “Right from the days of the Jan Sangh,” he tells his loyalists, “the final call was always with a senior-most person. Jan Sangh founder SP Mookherjee was the last word until his death. After him, it was Deendayal Upadhyay and then AB Vajpayee, who always consulted me.”
Also, Advani is firm that, no matter what the RSS thinks, the BJP will have to project a face in the elections. “People vote for a face as PM and then choose the party behind that face. We cannot win over voters without a credible face.”
An indisposed Vajpayee, who is now 87, is out of the scene. BJP governments run schemes named after him to woo voters while the party grapples with the issue of leadership. Many think Narendra Modi remains the best bet. Once the Gujarat polls are over in December, he should be free to shift to the centre. But the big question is whether senior BJP leaders in Delhi will want that to happen easily. Even the RSS may not mind “utilising” his leadership at least once though it is against personality cults.
The stumbling block will be NDA allies like Janata Dal (U) who are wary of losing their “secular” votes if they support Modi. On the other hand, Jaitley, 59, who has a credible image and no ideological baggage could be the next best bet, agree young BJP leaders. As BJP president or PM candidate, Jaitley, along with Modi, could make a formidable pair. But Swaraj and many others won’t want that to happen. Swaraj is counting on Advani’s “blessings” in the post-poll scenario, say BJP insiders. Her comment on Vice President Hamid Ansari’s candidature for being President, which caused a row, had its genesis in the game of one-upmanship within the BJP, insiders say.
The troubles in the party have, however, left young leaders demoralised. Gadkari’s supporters say “infighting in BJP” is a media obsession and overlooks the Congress’ ills. “The Congress’ decline is certain and will have to be our gain. When the polls are held, our PM candidate will be ready. The BJP’s role in Parliament is a pointer.”
Another BJP functionary argued, “A lot of party work is going on, which is non-sexy for the media.”
But are voters seeing anything different in the BJP now? Not yet.
Five hurdles for the party
With infighting and the lack of a clearly popular candidate to lead the party in the forthcoming elections, the BJP is between a rock and a very hard place indeed.
1. Image needs bolstering
Two years since the last Lok Sabha polls, BJP has remained a divided house and refused to draw a lesson from debacles of 2004 and 2009. Caught in bitter rivalry, Central and state BJP leaders can’t figure out their priority and what they need to do to fix their image. They live in the belief that voters will choose the BJP because they can’t choose the Congress again.
But the BJP is seen as a far cry from being the main alternative to a Congress-led UPA, which is sliding in popularity after seven years of rule. Nitin Gadkari, 55, was chosen by the RSS to head the party because L K Advani and other seniors could not agree on a successor. But as Gadkari’s style upset the seniors, the crux of the problem is who should be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Besides, the party’s image has taken a beating on issues like corruption. Bangaru Laxman’s conviction, the Supreme Court-ordered probe into BS Yeddyurappa’s role as CM in illegal mining and other sleaze cases in BJP-ruled Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have left the party’s name in tatters.
2. RSS vs BJP
The BJP and RSS cannot do without each other. Being its political arm, the BJP looks to the parent body to play the referee in feuds and back up its organisational network. Of late, RSS men in the BJP are under attack for playing sides and being corrupt. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat believes the Sangh interferes only when squabbling BJP leaders seek its help.
Advani and other senior leaders think otherwise, and want the party to be allowed to decide its destiny. Bhagwat brought in Gadkari in 2009-end, impressed by his work as Maharashtra minister when many flyovers and the Mumbai-Pune expressway were built. The RSS has ensured he gets another term but BJP insiders expect changes when preparations begin for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. An unsettled leadership has meant there is resentment at every level. Many turn to the RSS for their battles in the BJP.
3. Infighting among leaders
Gadkari is disliked by Advani, Sushma Swaraj, MM Joshi and Yashwant Sinha for being a “bull in a china shop”, for his unconventional ways of running the party by his fiat.
Narendra Modi resents Gadkari’s decision to rope in his bête noire Sanjay Joshi in UP poll management. Swaraj resents Arun Jaitley’s role and sees him as a challenge to her being in the top slot. Modi and Jaitley could make a natural pair like Vajpayee and Advani between the 1980s and 2004, but the RSS wants a loyalist like Gadkari in the loop so that personalities don’t dominate the party.
During the Vajpayee-Advani era, Advani represented the RSS in the BJP while Vajpayee was the face of the party. That was till Advani sought to drop his Ayodhya stir image by praising Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secularist, and lost the presidentship of the BJP in 2005. In the 2009 polls, the RSS agreed to the BJP’s decision to project Advani as its PM candidate but the infighting involving Rajnath Singh and his aides and Jaitley, who was chief strategist, felled the party.
4. Groupism and cliques
The BJP has to reinvent its role as a alternative to the Congress to attract its voters. Senior party leaders must put their heads together to chose a face to lead them in 2014. Infighting must stop, everyone in BJP says. Most state units are led by old and tired faces that don’t lure voters, as was seen in Uttar Pradesh.
The RSS too may have to be told to rein in its functionaries in the BJP who function as sanghthan mahamantris but indulge in groupism. The BJP could also do well to project a modernist image, as outlined by Jaitley and other leaders, instead of harping on Hindutva that neither motivates cadres nor voters. Gadkari, Advani, Swaraj and Jaitley agreed recently to end the perceived drift between the two wings of the party — its organisational wing and the parliamentary unit. But the element of competition that adds to a dissonance and too many varying voices on key issues must definitely be ended.
The party may also have to shed its anti-minority image, which may be a tall order.
5. Trouble in the states
The BJP’s script for UP was more than just about securing third position after the SP and the BSP in the assembly polls. Rather, it was about reinventing the party’s future ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. UP sends the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha. No one rules India without winning UP, which remains elusive for BJP. The induction of Uma Bharti or controversial BSP rebel Babu Singh Kushawa did not work. After the debacle, the BJP finds itself back to basics. The absence of young and fresh faces means the BJP has no answer to SP’s Akilesh Yadav and his brigade though the scenario may change by 2014 when anti-incumbency factors come to roost against them.
Vasundhara Raje returned as leader of opposition in Rajasthan after a gap of one year in February 2011 after central BJP leaders thought she was the best bet for the 2013 assembly polls. But a tiff between her supporter, Kiran Maheshwari, and Raje’s arch rival and old RSS hand, Gulabchand Kateria, over his Nitin Gadkari-blessed yatra escalated into a full blown war. Raje threatened to quit, forcing Kateria to back off. But the resignation drama enacted by 60 MLAs in her support showed she may form her own party if she was not given a free hand. As the infighting assumed a BJP versus RSS tone, Raje did pipe down but the feud showed that if the leaders didn’t learn, they might lose again like they did in 2008.
A desperate chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal is ready to bury the hatchet with senior BJP leader Shanta Kumar for winning the polls due later this year. An outspoken Kumar is critical of Dhumal for turning a blind eye to corruption and controversial land deals. Awaiting a response for his call for a clean-up in government, he is reluctant to be part of Dhumal’s poll team. Kumar wants tainted ministers and PSU chairmen — most of them Dhumal loyalists — shown the door. But Dhumal cannot let down his supporters so easily. A silver lining for Dhumal is that the Congress is a divided house too as Union ministers Virbhadra Singh and Anand Sharma are at loggerheads.
The first saffron-ruled state in the south looks terribly disappointed with the BJP, riddled by scams and infighting. True, the Supreme Court’s decision allowing a CBI probe into his role in the illegal allotment of mining leases struck a blow to BS Yeddyurappa, who has been fighting to be reinstated as CM. But VS Sadananda Gowda, who succeeded BSY, can hardly salavage the party. Lacking in stature and appeal, Gowda’s energies have so far been spent in fending off BSY and his Lingayat MLAs. The infamous Reddy brothers are out to demolish the BJP too.
The BJP and its ally, Janata Dal(U), who are partners in the coalition led by chief minister Nitish Kumar, have never stopped bickering since they came to power. Kumar’s prime ministerial ambitions have often given the jitters to BJP leaders, who are divided into two groups — one led by deputy CM Sushil Modi, who is seen as kowtowing to him, and another led by his rivals who want the BJP to be a bit more assertive. A known Nitish Kumar-baiter, Ashwini Chaubey declared Modi as NDA’s PM candidate at a function held in Surat. An upset JD(U) lost no time in saying there was no question of backing Modi as PM.
As Gadkari and his rival Gopinath Munde learn to work together, the Shiv Sena has opposed its ally BJP’s inclination towards the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). BJP sees it as a strategy to keep Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) away from power. The BJP won more seats than the Sena in the last polls held in October 2009. BJP leaders would be happy if the Sena sinks differences with MNS, and a grand coalition of the BJP, Sena, MNS and RPI bags 165 of the 289 seats seats because MNS has an influential vote bank in 92 assembly segments. Last month, Gadkari called on Bal Thackeray to break the ice that had formed between them since February.