Decoding Gadkari Code
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) can heave a sigh of relief as Nitin Gadkari, the man chosen by it to replace Rajnath Singh as the president of BJP and to lift the party from the morass, has come of age, rather very fast. There were reservations in many quarters that he would also be reduced to a pawn in the hands of a handful of “Advani loyalists”, who were calling the shots in the party. This group, though not a monolithic one, with its members sniping at anyone and everyone and each other—was formidable and well entrenched.
The BJP that once boasted of its discipline the party with difference—had become a refuge of self seekers, sycophants and manipulators. The disillusioned cadre of the party drifted away.
It was at this juncture that the ideological mentor of the party, the RSS, intervened and cracked the whip. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sent a clear message which had a desired effect with bickering leaders declaring ceasefire to their public spat. But to think that this is the end of the factional feud and henceforth the party would move like a well-oiled engine would be a folly. The internecine battle will once again break out when Gadkari announces his team. But with the strong support of the RSS, which has given him a clear mandate to clean-up the organisation, Gadkari can tide over some of the troubles.
Going by his performance at the national council meet held at Indore, Gadkari has given an impression that he is a leader who would not hesitate to call spade a spade. Although he lavishly praised his seniors in the party for their support when he landed in Delhi to adorn a national role, he blamed them for the rot in the party. He said the problems the party faced were not from grassroots workers but from leaders who had benefitted from the party. Obviously, this is not a breakthrough observation or new find, but to say this in front of his senior leaders needed an amount of frankness and courage.
Can Gadkari bring song to BJP’s lips?
Of all sights that, perhaps, conveyed what it’s all about, it was new BJP President Nitin Gadkari singing Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye kabhi to hansaaye kabhi ye rulaaye at his party’s down market jamboree at Indore.
Gadkari, 52, could not have chosen a more apt song than this signature tune from 1971 Hindi film, Anand, to highlight the grim fact of life that joy and pain are much part of a political party’s innings of the last 30 years as much that of a person’s progress from scratch to peak and then back too.
As 5,000 delegates who make up for the hierarchical structure of India’s principal opposition clapped to his song and heard him earlier on what ills the party, a big question on their minds was: can Gadkari bring song back to BJP’s lips? Can he walk the talk? Can he alter paradigms and blow away cobwebs of old ways of thinking and doing?
Does he really mean that you can be rewarded for good work without having to fall at someone’s feet, or heap garlands on those who pass away as big netas?
Chosen by the party’s ideological fount, the RSS, Gadkari came out not as a leader but as BJP’s Barrack Obama who was willing to offer hope—this one thing that was missing all these months particularly after the drubbing the BJP got in the Lok Sabha polls in June 2009 after infighting left bruised egos.
Along with the message of hope, he was also re-playing what has now come to be Obama’s favourite slogan: yes, we can! And, yet we don’t!
Even for the hard-nosed cynics, the BJP, for once, did not appear to be singing an old tune. Change was in the air. Whether it was Gadkari’s plain-speaking to fellow leaders as he opened the three-day conclave or his wrap-up, the message—since he took over in December—was that “it’s not over until it is really over” and “that is not yet.”
Even as he changed the impression about himself and the party, Gadkari also crafted a new image for the parent body, the RSS, or for its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, who remained the behind-the-screen catalyst for this change.
Could Gadkari speaking the new language on a whole host of issues including the Ram temple without the RSS’ nod?
Like a doctor, Gadkari showed he was playing the doctor, ready first with a diagnostic report of what’s gone wrong, and later with a prescription that seemed could work if made to work.
Gadkari saw the crisis within the party was not one caused by small leaders but the “over ambitious” among senior leaders who were seeking more and more in terms of posts and perks.
Gadkari’s observation came after Rajnath Singh, who vacated the post for him on completing his term, described his role as that of King Vikramaditya whose singular duty is to do justice to all (within the party) and take everyone along.
Even while thanking the seniors from helping him find his feet in his new job, Gadkari said, “Our problems come not from small leaders but from the big ones, who have got everything and yet are wanting more at any cost, driven by their ambition.”
Gadkari listed “personal ambition” as the single most ill plaguing the BJP in the wake of the Lok Sabha poll defeat. With the RSS fully behind him, a confident Gadkari bluntly told the leaders that “instead of seeking to pull down others, they should raise their own bar of performance for optimum result.”
“Have a large heart,” Gadkari counseled the leaders. “Chote dil se bade kaam nahi hota. (Small hearts and minds cannot achieve big things. Neither can broken hearts.) Think of the country first, then the party and yourself at last.”
Gadkari recalled that, wherever he went, he found that these leaders complained often that they had done so much for the party but hey had not been compensated adequately.
Acknowledging that distribution of ticket during the elections was a sore issue, Gadkari said the ground rule should be that it must go to persons who were popular and could win. “But, what we find is that there is jostling and everyone seemed to think of their future only and not that of the party.”
With the Indian political scene, as LK Advani often points out, divided by two principal poles one led by the Congress and the other by the BJP, two distinct schools of governance can be drawn out and offered before this country as alternatives to chose from when multiple options have merely promoted opportunism.
For this to succeed, the BJP has to really become a party with a difference; without which the voters will not have a choice. Whether it is the issue of internal security, economic revival, Kashmir or development, the BJP or its leaders must bear a distinct stamp if their politics must survive.
By drawing attention to the “politics of development” or antodayaa, Gadkari offered to party leaders a simple, workable formula by which they could endear themselves to the people. “Do something for the people, take up some social or developmental activity in your area” was Gadkari’s constant refrain.
Gadkari’s new approach is not without skepticism in some quarters. “Do what works and do what matters” may be a corporate adage. But, it could make his cadres wonder whether the party is going the corporate way.
As he wrapped up the three-day conclave, Gadkari, who has LK Advani’s firm backing for ushering in change in work culture, sounded he meant business by emphasizing that, hence forth, accountability and performance would indeed be the buzz words.
Also, BJP leaders must brace up to undergo training to hone their skills in leadership and political work. “We are not 100 per cent perfect.”
Gadkari is, however, not turning to any B-school to impart training to his leaders. Rather, Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodini, a training centre set up by RSS activists as a brainchild of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, will come to the aid of Gadkari’s plan. In fact, Gadkari made it a point to announce the name of Alok Kumar, a BJP functionary, as the convenor for the training modules. Similar training programmes were held for BJP leaders earlier. Gadkari is keen to revive the practice.
Gadkari’s pet scheme, Antodaya, involving BJP leaders to take up social welfare and development programmes like NGOs to help the poor will be handled by another functionary, Vamanacharya.
As he promised a fair deal to BJP workers and leaders who performed, Gadkari convey to them what he has in mind is a nationwide party intiative for “building up” the capacities of party functionaries and elected representatives at every level.
As Gadkari put it, “we are planning a three phase structured training programme that will ensure that while selecting party workers for shouldering responsibilities, their capacity to deliver will be improved for results.”
As for evaluating performance, Gadkari said he has in mind instituting awards for the “best performing MP, MLA , even municipal ward councilor or even a sarpanch.” His idea is that this will send a right signal that good performance is noticed and non-performers must do something too.
Gadkari told BJP delegates that, as performance will be a key to an individual’s progress in their party. “All elected representatives, ministers and BJP governments will be asked to do their own annual performance reports and asses their work.”
Gadkari’s other plans include relaunching “Friends of BJP” to reconnect with the middle class, particularly young professionals who look at the party as “an instrument of change in India.”
However, BJP leaders, who were made to rough it out in tents during the conclave, think that Gadkari’s plans are not so much about becoming corporate as much about returning to the old style functioning as “fighting party machine” that made it take the centre stage in the 1990s.
Senior BJP leader LK Advani was right when he wrote in his blog that initial scepticism on whether Gadkari would be able to inspire confidence in party cadre had rapidly melted away. “As a party activist who has attended every single National Council session of the party since the first national conference held at Kanpur in 1953, I can say that the participants at the session had all arrived at the tented township put up at Indore with a question mark writ large and bold on their faces. The question bothering them was: “Will the new All-India president of the party, 52-year-old Nitin Gadkari, would be able to inspire confidence in the party cadre, seemingly disheartened and disappointed by two successive setbacks in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009.”
In politics, all statements and utterances should not be taken in their face value. Therefore, Advani’s fulsome praise for Gadkari should also be taken with a pinch of salt. Advani, being a seasoned politician, knows well in which direction the wind is blowing. It could also be an effort to show the tenure of Gadkari’s predecessor, against whom he nurses a grudge, in poor light.
But the real challenge before Gadkari is how he revamps the organisation and transforms it into a winning party. With regard to reshaping of the party too, even if he has the full support of the RSS, he
will have to walk a tightrope. There are fears among some sections of the party that he may bring in his own team to Delhi and fill the party posts with fellow Maharashtrians, who would make some influential leaders redundant.
More than on the organisational front, his real test is how he is going to go about changing the electoral fortunes of the party. Although the party is in power in over 11 states, it is yet to give the resurgent Congress a tough fight at national level. The fiery march of Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the Congress, has to be halted if the BJP wants to enhance its position. One major political development that has witnessed in the last general election was the decimation of regional political parties, except a few. But the Congress seemed to benefit from this rather than the BJP.
In states where the BJP is in power also, the party’s position is not very encouraging. For instance, in Bihar, the BJP is on the verge of losing its core constituency the upper castes, whereas the Congress is making steady inroads into its traditional vote base. In UP, though not in power, the party has to once again start from its scratch.
Although much voice is not heard now a days, the party is in the grip of an ideological dilemma. Whether the party has to return to its aggressive Hindutva ideology or remain as a right-of-the-centre party is a puzzle that has no easy answers. Whatever the leaders may say, a considerable section of the committed party cadre favours hardcore Hindutva. But again revisiting Hindutva would be politically suicidal as many of its allies would not be comfortable with the idea. Today or tomorrow, the party will have to find an answer to the question, as ideological clarity is essential for a party like the BJP.
But there are many within and outside who argue that a party can survive without an ideology. The Congress is the best example before us. What has kept the BJP apart from other political parties has been its ideology. It is wrong to say that party suffered setbacks because of its ideology. If that is the case, then the party would not have risen to its eminent position. So the problem lies somewhere else; the problem lies with the party and its leaders.
Gadkari has given indications that he does not want the party to adopt a confrontationist line and favours “inclusive politics” and even called upon Muslims to support the ‘Hindus’ demand for a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Though this would not win the BJP many Muslim votes or change their stance towards the party, it would certainly be music to the ears of “liberals” in the party.
However, the RSS’ intervention in the BJP affairs is a double-edged weapon. It definitely has its advantage as it helps keep the party united and Gadkari has asked the Sangh to loan workers for the party. With its pracharaks in key positions of decision-making, the Sangh has got a stranglehold over the party. Its diktats are rarely disobeyed by the party leaders, who look up to Jhandewalan for directions on key issues.
But at the same time party politics is a different ball game and the pracharaks are often ill-suited for it. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi are exceptions. Many of the pracharaks who were loaned by the Sangh for the BJP turned out to be liabilities and they created more problems for the party rather than helping its cause. Besides, a section of the party leaders is not very comfortable with ‘inexperienced’ pracharaks breathing down their necks. And for the Sangh too, too much indulgence with power politics has adversely affected its activities. Therefore, it would be in the interests of both the BJP and RSS to concentrate on their areas of activity.
For Gadkari, so far so good. But he has a long way to go. The crux of his strategy unveiled at the national council has been to rebuild the party and encourage the cadre to get into agitational mode. This is not a great idea as such as all political parties try to gain brownie points on the pitfalls of their rivals. What actually the BJP needs is not a revamp but rebirth. The greatest contribution of LK Advani is that he changed the course of Indian politics and the nature of political discourse in the country. Will Gadkari measure up to Advani? Only time will tell.
By GS Nair