BJP president Nitin Gadkari is not known for his finesse. Rather, he is given to colourful - if often off-colour - remarks every time he tries to be statesmanlike. So, forgive me for trying to discern the subtext of his latest proposition that the BJP has a raft of leaders to choose from and so will not go into the next election projecting any prime ministerial candidate.
Is the portly party president making a virtue of necessity? The Congress may be faction-ridden on a subterranean level, but when it comes to leadership, there is only one hallelujah chorus: the Gandhi family. Or, as we have been seeing for a while now, a person handpicked by the Family. The BJP, on the other hand, could not muster up a unifying leader even if it strained its flabby muscles. I was guessing that a search had been on from within the proverbial second tier of leadership after the exit of LK Advani. Now
Mr Gadkari has announced that the search has been abandoned for all purposes.
But, while the BJP's upper floor may be a little sparsely decorated, its ground floor is more than comfortable. Its chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Sadanand Gowda in Karnataka, Narendra Modi in Gujarat have been quite the role models in the development, governance and economy fronts (notwithstanding the glass ceiling that stops Mr Modi from ever turning 'national leader').
If I were (god forbid) Mr Gadkari, I would have been quick to take credit for allowing chief ministers to work unhindered by an oppressive high command. But we suspect that the success of some of the BJP's key CMs is more because of the central BJP leadership's short arms of influence rather than any enviable delegating powers. Mr Gadkari may be a bit of a bumbler, but he is shrewd enough to know that his writ does not run much beyond the party headquarters in Ashoka Road in Delhi. Well, at least till his office room.
The Congress, gathered in the shade of the dynastic banyan, presents a complete contrast to the BJP. While the Centre appears unified, things are shaky in most states still under its belt. In Andhra Pradesh, the chief minister has been left to the wolves with rebel Jaganmohan Reddy snapping at his heels. In Kerala, chief minister Oommen Chandy's worst nightmares have come true as the old palmolein case has come back to haunt him. And the jewel in the Congress crown, Delhi, looks wobbly as chief minister Auntie Sheila has been singed if not yet scorched by the aftermath of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the Commonwealth Games.
Coming back to Mr Gadkari though, he seems to have forgotten a crucial issue. If the party had a person of national stature who could galvanise it, it wouldn't have looked to an obscure politician from Maharashtra to be its president. Projected as the quintessential backroom boy, Mr Gadkari seems to have stayed in the backroom when he should have been leading from the front.
But let us not underestimate the man's native wisdom, which I would approvingly call cunning. Could he be laying the ground for higher ambitions on his part? Is he hoping to throw his own hat in the ring come election 2014? After all it is not unknown or unreasonable for a party president to aspire to the highest political office in the land. And political non-entities, ahem, have become PM before.
If I clear my brain, I can see the neon sign: Nitin Gadkari, the dark horse, the first among equals pitted against Rahul Gandhi or a G family nominee. Well, if nothing we can look forward to many mixed metaphors and inappropriate similies. But we have to at least give it to Mr Gadkari: he could be thinking ahead, even if in a woolly manner.
By contrast, the Congress is smug in its central command and control format, even as it fails to notice that the ship of State it is steering has sprung several leaks. But unfortunately for Mr Gadkari, his remarks are not likely to set political dovecotes at the moment. Half the nation is riveted on a 74-year-old man's crusade against corruption, and the other half are probably not that well acquainted with
Mr Gadkari. So what will it be, the horse without the rider or the rider without the horse? Either way, I see interesting times ahead - 'interesting' in the sense of the Chinese curse: 'May you live in interesting times'.
At the moment, neither the Congress nor the BJP is looking even half-ready for the race ahead. The GOP is grasping for a lifeline while Anna Hazare takes the wind out of its sails. And Mr Gadkari's leadership collegiate is clutching at the debris around the Anna vs Government slugfest. So it surprises me not one bit that we are riveted not by what the ruling party or the main national Opposition party is up to, but by folks who lie outside the box. However unruly that space might be.