He may not be fighting fit yet, but the surgically diminished BJP party president Nitin Gadkari is in a 'let me at them' mood, as his unprecedented second term has been endorsed at the party's recent national executive meet. After the photo-ops in the customary finery, the BJP has come out all guns blazing against the UPA's scams, sell-out on FDI, inability to govern, penchant to hike prices, disdain for its allies, allergy to democracy. Have I left out anything?
Underlying the newfound aggression against a government on the ropes, however, I could still discern a sense of insecurity, an unwillingness to go the whole hog against the UPA. Of course, a shadow over the proceedings was cast by the fact that the bellicose Karnataka strongman BS Yeddyurappa did not attend amid rumours that he will break away and form his own party. This would be a body blow to the BJP which considers Karnataka as its gateway to the south.
But one of the positives from this meet is that it seems to have ended once and for all former president LK Advani's fond hopes that he will make a comeback and be considered a prime ministerial candidate if the party assumes power. This was Gadkari's 'read my lips' moment. The message — you have had your time in the sun, now off and away with you into the saffron sunset, don't call us, we'll call you. Of course, Advani made a speech leaving out bits and pieces which could embarrass some prominent faces in the party. Great, so far so good.
But what does not seem to have been resolved is the L word. Who will be the leader who will command the troops as they race into the next election? If this were a question on Kaun Banega Crorepati, it would be a) Narendra Modi b) Nitin Gadkari c) Sushma Swaraj d) Arun Jaitley. And you'd need more than a lifeline or two to get the right answer. If you were to look at mass popularity, it would have to be Narendra Modi by a clear shot. If it was a consensus candidate and RSS choice, it could be Nitin Gadkari. If it was for a learned, suave, internationally acceptable leader, it would be Arun Jaitely and if it was for a mass leader and experienced administrator, it would be Sushma Swaraj.
We then come to the even more vexing issue — does the BJP have the big idea, the pithy slogan, one that can electrify crowds like Indira Gandhi's garibi hatao or the UPA's aam aadmi mantra? And the answer is a resounding no. The BJP, sadly enough, has now painted itself into a corner specialising only in reactive politics. At the moment, all it seems able to tell us is that the Congress is bad, bad, bad. Okay, so what else?
How about explaining that little inconvenient fact that the BJP itself was all for reforms far more far-reaching than the UPA has advocated? Instead of a clear answer, all we get is waffle about how the BJP is indeed in favour of reforms but not at the cost of the small farmer, the small trader, the man on the street, the homemaker in the kitchen, yada, yada, yada.
If truth be told, the glory days of the BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee have yet to be recreated. The problem is that it simply does not have that kind of towering personality in its ranks. It is hobbled by the contradictory pulls of the RSS and its exclusionist agenda and its own desire to be seen as inclusive and modern. The world and India have moved on, but the RSS has remained firmly rooted in its Golwalkarian mindset of the constricting bylanes of Nagpur.
Gadkari, to his credit, is a consensus man, an able organiser though not in the same class as the late Pramod Mahajan. But he has quite a bit of baggage, not the least of which are somewhat dubious friends and a reluctance to explain some of his business dealings. These are issues which he needs to come clean on. On the face of it, he has made many efforts to reinvent himself. From a sartorial leg-up to a rapid trimming down of his substantial form, he is trying to acquire a presidential gravitas. But, what we need to see is some substance as well. What we need to see is the alternative vision that the BJP has to offer to us.
If the BJP cannot get past telling us what we already know, that the government has goofed up badly on so many counts, it is unlikely that we are going to rush out to support it. I can't understand this, with so many bright people in its ranks, why is it not coming up with something we can get our teeth into, something that will electrify us even if momentarily? At this rate, all we will have to choose from is six of one and half and dozen of the other. Come on Mr Gadkari, you can do better. Give it a try, once more with feeling.