Six months ago when Nitin Gadkari (53) succeeded Rajnath Singh as president of the 30-year-old BJP, he wasn’t expected to do what Tony Blair did to the UK’s Labour Party in mid-nineties.
Yet, within days of taking charge, Gadkari infused new ideas in a party that had been driven from one internal crisis to another because of infighting and lack of focus since the Lok Sabha debacles of 2004 and 2009.
Gadkari promised to go on a talent hunt and get the right people for the right jobs. He also pledged to bring a new work culture through ‘performance audit’ and reward only those who do good work (see box).
A non-controversial leader, Gadkari had made it after all because the Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh (RSS) overlooked the claims of several senior leaders as they won’t agree on one other as next chief.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had worked out a succession formula: Gadkari would head the party and 82-year-old L.K. Advani would give way for younger hands in Parliament and guide a younger president as mentor.
In return, Advani’s word would count on all matters. Advani endorsed Gadkari’s name over former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parikkar, who was supposed to be the Sangh’s first choice. By December-end, Gadkari was ordering a new jacket to brace Delhi’s winter.
The ‘RSS-Advani formula’ did seem fine till Gadkari got down to work. When, after three months, he announced his team of office-bearers, everyone excepting Gadkari was disappointed. New faces – chosen by Gadkari – were just handful.
Some BJP leaders said Advani’s shadow over Gadkari was clear though the former himself was not too happy with the new chief’s working.
Gadkari realised that, being relatively junior to other BJP leaders, he had to go by their advice and his own intervention could only be minimal – except to balance the demands of one group or the other.
“If he pleased Advani in one instance, he had to follow what Rajnath Singh had to say in another,” said a BJP functionary. “If he went by Arun Jaitely’s views in one case, he had to hear what Sushma Swaraj had to say in another,” he explained.
As University of Hyderabad political science professor Jyotirmoy Sharma put it, “nothing has changed in the BJP since it lost power in 2004. It is in a comatose state with total ideological confusion. Nothing can change in the BJP. Only newspapers keep looking for something to happen. That is not possible unless it splits.”
Stung by reports that the party is adrift, Gadkari thinks it is too early to write his political epitaph and, certainly, the RSS won’t let him fail. Also, he is doing his best and subject to constant correction and improvement.
Gadkari’s defence is that he has acted without any bias or malice. “You tell me what I should do to correct the situation, I will do that,” he tells any BJP leader who is upset with any decision. “I didn’t come to Delhi dreaming to be Prime Minister. I came to do the job I was given. I will succeed, I know, (but) it may take time.”
The RSS won’t let him down, yet. “We cannot accept Gadkari has failed. He needs more time. His failure would mean the Sangh’s prescription failed. The RSS won’t do that,” said a Sangh functionary.
The BJP’s state of drift figured in a brainstorming session involving Sangh and party leaders. Advani reiterated his suggestion of a “single command” in the BJP for effective management. That single command could be Gadkari as party chief. But other BJP leaders and the RSS favoured the idea that decisions be taken collectively. The Sangh is unwilling to reverse its earlier decision that personalities should not dominate in the post-Vajpayee or - Advani era.