Don't choke on your Sunday coffee - and I hope Nitin Gadkari doesn't choke on his morning samosa if and when he reads this - but I've found something common between the BJP president and Jawaharlal Nehru. Gadkari seems to have taken a leaf out of Nehru's book and figured out that the best way to run a party is to allow its regional leaders to flourish. Bigwig regional leaders like S Nijalingappa and Periyar were unchallenged on their own turf despite the banyan-like figure of Nehru in the Grand Old Party days. It was only later that an insecure Indira Gandhi did away with this party franchise culture and instituted an all-powerful high command.
I'm pretty sure that Gadkari isn't the type who came up with the idea of letting a 'thousand satraps bloom'. But even as big regional players of the party such as Narendra Modi, BS Yeddyurappa and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank are able to thumb their noses at the party headquarters and get away with it, the party president sitting in Delhi is finding it useful to let this arrangement be. To his credit, Gadkari's response to Modi's absence at last week's BJP national executive meet has been most understated. This is making a show of indiscipline or rebellion work in favour of the BJP as a whole. Smart man, Gadkari. Although a BJP insider told me with a straight face that he didn't put it past the party president, who recently had a surgery to reduce the size of his stomach, to be quite convinced by the explanation that Narendra-bhai doesn't travel during navratri as he sticks to his fasts. (The Congress, on the other hand, is still stuck in the culture of regional leaders having to scamper to Delhi and seek the high command's consent for the slightest of decisions that probably includes whether to fast during navratri or not.)
Gadkari seems to be well aware that he is no latter-day LK Advani or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Thus the strategy of making a virtue out of necessity. Satraps who can deliver the goods are increasingly in short supply in the Congress and this is where the BJP could eventually score if it plays its cards right. Leaders such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh chief ministers Shivraj Chouhan and Raman Singh respectively are considered good administrators and able mass leaders. As for Modi, he seems to be towering over all the others at the moment, largely on the development and governance plank and the thumbs-up he has got from investors. To allow these leaders free rein is the only way the BJP can get out of the doldrums at a time when charismatic BJP leaders are seriously in short supply.
Once again, whether by design or accident, Gadkari has done well to not anoint anyone as the party's face in the next elections. Neither does he have the wherewithal to select a prime ministerial candidate nor does he have a cupboard full of leaders to choose from. So the BJP's 'decision not to field a prime ministerial candidate' sounds way better than 'We don't have any prime ministerial material'.
Within the party, Gadkari's now being seen as a consensus builder. His prowess at this job seems heightened by the rifts in the Congress. Think about it. In the past, a CM or a senior leader staying away from the national executive would have merited severe disciplinary action. True, Modi isn't an Uma Bharti. But by playing down a ruckus-in-the-making about the Gujarat CM's absence because of differences with Advani over the latter's latest rath yatra, Gadkari has taken the sting out of the intra-party tale.
Of course, none of this means that the BJP will be elbowing out the UPA government in 2014. The party's still in need of growing an arm. But if regional BJP leaders are allowed to function independently and without shows of finger-wagging from the central leadership, the party may be able to revitalise its rank and file. The BJP's core strength is in the RSS cadre, something that has not been lost on Gadkari. It was the RSS that acted as a check on Advani's prime ministerial yearnings. Modi is very keen that everyone knows he isn't too thick with the RSS these days as he's got a modern nation... oops, a modern state to run. But even he knows that he needs the Sangh's cadre on his side.
In all this, Gadkari's 'Don't fix what isn't broke' principle can be deemed mature. It could also signal a new and more robust era in BJP politics that is currently in a state of disrepair. Whether by 2014, the BJP and its president turns into a leaner, meaner fighting machine is hard to say at this stage. But by letting the regional taps run with full force, chances are the main tank will be full in time.