In 2004, when the Congress and the NCP returned to power in Maharashtra against all expectations, there was a bit of a drama over the selection of the chief minister. Sushilkumar Shinde was the incumbent in office and, of course, he was duly elected as the leader of the House. However, even as reporters scrambled to flash the news to the world, suddenly Vilasrao Deshmukh was declared chief minister. One wondered at the last minute change. Much later we were told that the decision had come from the party high command on the advice of the Congress general secretary in-charge of that election, Digvijaya Singh.
“It was felt that Shinde had not contributed as much to the election campaign. Deshmukh’s meetings had rivalled Sharad Pawar’s both in terms of numbers and quality. The Congress owed the victory to him in no small measure. Though Shinde was clearly the high command’s favourite at the time, even the party president felt that in the interest of justice Deshmukh be given the job. Shinde was sent off as governor and later duly rehabilitated in the Union Cabinet.”
I am reminded of that parallel this season but there is a difference. The BJP had no leader worth talking about during the elections but for Narendra Modi. However, Union transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari came a close second to Modi. Gadkari conducted more meetings than Modi across Maharashtra. Given the fact that BJP candidates, including many sitting MLAs, lost in 17 of the 27 constituencies where Modi campaigned, Gadkari’s achievement was no mean feat. The BJP swept Vidarbha — Gadkari had been working systematically over the years to wrest the region from the Congress.
Devendra Fadnavis, by all accounts of mutual friends from Nagpur, is a measured individual. He had been described to me as a younger, more homegrown version of former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, which is a very good thing considering the pressures he might face leading his party in government in the state. However, I cannot help but feel rather sympathetic towards Gadkari who has worked hard towards turning a Congress fortress in favour of a party that was never regarded as an option even in the headquarters of the RSS until the 2014 Lok Sabha elections whereas Fadnavis’ contribution to this electoral victory has been as negligible as Shinde’s was in 2004.
Destiny, of course, plays a major role in such matters and I remember Deshmukh telling me in 2004 and earlier in 1999 that the job of chief minster came to him both times when he was least expecting it. One has to be in the right place at the right time as Fadnavis clearly was. Both Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde countered Gadkari’s growing influence in Vidarbha in the 1990s and perhaps the Modi-Amit Shah duo does not want a chief minister who will fly too high, either, as Gadkari surely will.
All said and done, whatever the recent controversies that Gadkari might have got himself into, he was the star performer of the Shiv Sena-BJP government of the late 1990s. He continues to be the only minister actually delivering on the ground in the Modi government at a time when stalwarts like Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh and even Arun Jaitley seem rather listless and half-hearted.
It seems Gadkari is a victim of his own proximity to the powers that be in the RSS — he was brought down by LK Advani and his cohorts in the BJP who then feared he might be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. While Advani’s ambitions were in turn shattered by Modi, the same fear rules the current dispensation – that Gadkari might once again grow too big for his boots, considering the networking and kind of mingling with the high and mighty required by the chief minister of Maharashtra, particularly.
Political office, however, is two-thirds luck and only one-third ability. Guess Gadkari is once again out of luck on this one.