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Definitely well begun

A year in office is no big deal for the head of a political party like the BJP. But Nitin Gadkari, who recently completed one year as party president, has reasons to smile. Shekhar Iyer writes.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2011 11:14 IST

A year in office is no big deal for the head of a political party like the BJP. But Nitin Gadkari, who recently completed one year as party president, has reasons to smile.

Beginning as an RSS appointee — BJP seniors couldn’t agree on who’s the best leader among them after the party’s drubbing in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls — Gadkari ventured into unknown territory. Back then there were many, even in the BJP, who wondered ‘Why him?’ while he set out to answer ‘Who’s Gadkari?’ to the world. His choice of office-bearers left some seniors red-faced and his promise of a big-ticket change after his coronation seemed half-lost.

The RSS bosses, who thought Gadkari was the best bet, also seemed to be irked by the Nagpur ‘lad’ who began his political ‘career’ pasting posters during the Emergency. Bumbling through the BJP’s organisational mess, an underestimated Gadkari learnt to apply a method that had benefited him while he was highways minister of Maharashtra: first listen and then do what works best.

Through his interactions, Gadkari conveyed that he was not as ambitious as his predecessors and he did not have a personal agenda. His decisions were taken only after consulting the top five — LK Advani, MM Joshi, Rajnath Singh, Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. For the first time since 2004, the BJP’s internal atmosphere seemed to have improved. The party’s brainstorm sessions were now less about internal bickering and more about getting the BJP back on its feet.

Gadkari didn’t mind taking a big risk in tweaking the BJP core group’s line of thinking by forging a new deal with a recalcitrant Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. In the face of doubts from seniors, he initiated the Arjun Munda-led BJP rule in Shibu Soren’s company in the politically unstable but mine-rich state. Similarly, a beleaguered BS Yeddyurappa, who was supposed to be given marching orders for having failed to draw a line between family and the government, got a fresh lease of life because Gadkari felt the BJP had to win the panchayat polls — the party did.

Gadkari resisted those who backed Gujarat strongman Narendra Modi and ensured that the BJP remained on the side of chief minister Nitish Kumar in an election year in Bihar. Advised by Arun Jaitley, who re-emerged as chief strategist, the BJP shunned aggressive Hindutva tendencies to consolidate itself as the fulcrum of the NDA alliance.

Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, leaders of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha respectively, gave the party the much-needed thrust in Parliament to aid BJP street rallies on various issues like the price rise and the 2G spectrum scam. For the first time, Parliament disruptions by the Opposition were not seen as BJP’s disrespect for legislative institutions but as a legitimate weapon to combat the government’s attitude towards corruption.

Guided by saner voices pressing for a modernist BJP to emerge and match the slide in the Congress’ fortunes, Gadkari did not let pro-RSS elements go overboard over the arrest of swamis blamed for blasts in Malegaon, Ajmer or Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad. The lessons learnt earlier from the BJP’s aggressive stance on the arrest of sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur were not lost.

As differences among ministers and between the Congress and the government surfaced, the BJP sensed its own revival — though a longer road still needs to be traversed to emerge as an effective alternative. Gadkari put it in his one-year performance audit, “I would not claim that within a year we have changed the situation. However, I would say, we got the direction.” Most BJP leaders could not but agree with him. n