Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Nitin Gadkari’s new team — expected to be different, performance-oriented and forward-looking — turned out to be quite conventional. The only difference from the past was the glamour element brought by Bollywood and cricket stars.
When he took over in December 2009, Gadkari had promised that things would be different. Activists would be trained in corporate-style efficiency and performers would be rewarded. The idea, it seemed, was to build Brand Gadkari — modelled on the manager-politician.
Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s revival of the Youth Congress under neutral and professional observers might also have influenced the saffron thinking to employ the language of management in politics.
But the team hardly meets the promises that Gadkari made. Some leaders who lost the polls — or under whom the party lost — are back. And the new office bearers, with only a few exceptions, can hardly be called young.
“All sections of society are represented in the team,” said BJP General Secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad. “We have more Dalits and tribals in our team this time.”
Gadkari’s first challenge was to put the party in order after reining in different factions, especially after the defeat in the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. To cement the fragile peace, he had to accommodate people from different factions.
If Ananth Kumar, Vasundhara Raje and Arti Mehra, all appointed office-bearers, are believed to be close to L.K. Advani, former president Rajnath Singh’s loyalists such as Arjun Munda, Vijay Goel and Thavarchand Gehlot also find place in Gadkari's team.
The reason, some in the BJP say, could also be that the BJP’s fresh talent pool is limited, or not yet groomed enough. “Where will we get so many new faces from?” a BJP leader asked, defending the team.
The only sensational entry during the last few years is that of Varun Gandhi. But he has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, allegedly delivering hate speeches during the Lok Sabha polls. He, too, is in the new team as a secretary.
Next in Gadkari’s list was the crowd-pulling celeb force. The official position on this, according to Prasad, is: “Hema Malini, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Smriti Irani have worked for us politically and should not be seen as just celebrities.”
But sacrificed in the process were grass-root level political youth.
Outgoing Yuva Morcha President Amit Thakar and General Secretary Sanjeev Chaurasia did not find a place in the team. The party chose youth celebrities over activists.
The excuse: “The focus on youth is a Congress agenda to project Rahul Gandhi. Our strength always was experience,” said a senior BJP leader. “But once the youth agenda was brought up by the media, it was better to have young celebrities rather than unsung young activists none recognises.”
But Gadkari could hardly ignore the flavour of the day – 33 per cent reservation for women in the organisation. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj claimed: “We have taken the initiative to give due representation to women.”
For the crucial general secretary posts, however, only one woman, Vasundhara Raje, was chosen. Even this happened after Raje, who had defied previous party president Rajnath Singh's order to step down as leader of the opposition in the Rajasthan, was made to fall in line by Gadkari. Her inclusion was, thus, compensatory.
Apart from employing the managerial language, Brand Gadkari has also been pitched around a discourse of Dalit inclusion — again an attempt to fight off the Rahul factor.
Thavarchand Gehlot continues as a general secretary. He may not have performed too well, but is a Dalit face nevertheless. National Secretary Ashok Pradhan and spokesperson Ramnath Kovind are also Dalits, while General Secretary Arjun Munda and National Secretary Tapir Gao are tribals.
But where Gadkari has faltered is in regional balance. Among the national executive members, there are just two — Ananth Kumar and C.H. Vijayshankar — from Karnataka, which is supposed to be the BJP’s crucial gateway to the south.
Even more curious was the case with Gujarat. Although it should have been given more importance by Gadkari, who is a Rashtrya Swayam Sevak Sangh nominee, there is just one office-bearer: Purushottam Rupala, considered to be close to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The big question is: What exactly has Gadkari achieved through his team building exercise?
He owes his present stature to the RSS. On the ground, however, the BJP Parliamentary Board — comprising Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley — still remains taller than Team Gadkari.