Backhanded compliments from Modi’s critics or even the Congress is hardly something Gadkari will cherish to pitchfork him in the race to be PM.
Union minister and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Nitin Gadkari is a serious challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — thus goes a narrative that has been in the works for almost a year.
As the Lok Sabha polls are just two months away, this narrative is fuelled by many of Modi’s critics who bet on Gadkari emerging as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’) choice to replace Modi — in the event of a hung Parliament.
Perhaps, driving this narrative is Gadkari's recent comments that may have led many Congress leaders, including party President Rahul Gandhi, and even some BJP leaders to read hidden messages against the BJP or Modi.
It is true that Gadkari is a popular minister in Modi’s Cabinet, and his work load has grown over the last four years as Modi admires his ability to get work done in scaling up many things, in particular, infrastructure assets. Today, Gadkari holds various portfolios — road transport, highways, shipping, water resources, river development, and Ganga rejuvenation.
Countering the twists
It’s true that Gadkari always loved attention and adulation that came his way. That said, backhanded compliments from Modi’s critics or even the Congress is hardly the one that he will cherish to pitchfork him in the race.
A blunt talker, Gadkari has over the years built the image of a no-nonsense businessman-politician. He would never talk through his hat. This could be a reason why many, including some leaders in the BJP, were asking ‘Why is he shooting his mouth off?’ Was the stress of handling too many ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office expecting early delivery of mega projects before the Lok Sabha polls telling upon him?
Slow to begin with, Gadkari is now countering these compliments, labelling them as “twists” by the media and the Opposition.
Seen as a blue-eyed boy of the RSS, a number of middle-level BJP leaders has even begun to ask whether Gadkari is voicing the Sangh’s views. So, on February 7, when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was asked about Gadkari, he said: “Gadkari does not have the scheming mindset and he is happy with his current position.”
Since then, an unamused Gadkari has made it clear that he was not living in a fool’s paradise to fantasise about ousting Modi to become PM.
The Maharashtra angle
It was when things were dying down that Gadkari’s old friend and fellow Maharashtrian, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar stirred the pot. Pawar said that he was “worried” about Gadkari and feared for him because he was being projected as a possible alternative to Modi.
In 2014, the NCP offered to back the BJP in Maharashtra if Gadkari was made chief minister.
It’s no secret that after the November 2014 assembly election victory, Gadkari wanted to become Maharashtra CM — every Maharashtra leader worth his salt would love one such stint. His supporters even rallied in Gadkari’s favour.
However, much to Gadkari’s disappointment, Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah chose Devendra Fadnavis, a fresh face and younger leader from Nagpur, as CM. Since then, the Shiv Sena, another of Gadkari’s ally, is open about backing Gadkari, either as Maharashtra CM or Prime Minister.
Worst case scenario?
Be as it may, can a scenario emerge where Gadkari moves ahead of Modi in the months ahead? Insiders in the BJP believe that the RSS and the BJP’s rank and file won’t settle for anyone other than Modi. Modi still commands a heavy premium in the party and the RSS still rates Modi as the best bet.
The question of backing another BJP leader would arise only in the event of Modi deciding to opt out of reckoning. Given the current mood in the country, there’s hardly room for such a speculation. Modi has again taken the burden of bringing the BJP back to power on the strength of his government’s performance and, of course, his personal charisma.
As for Modi being propelled out by circumstances, some basic things would have to happen first. After the elections, the BJP’s tally should be so very low that it is forced to accept the “anybody but Modi” demand from existing and potential allies to avoid a Congress-led or backed rule that would target Modi, the RSS and the BJP.
Also, Modi must willingly abdicate in favour of someone next to him — be it Rajnath Singh or even Gadkari. However, in the event of the BJP not having the requisite numbers to form a government and Modi taking the moral high ground to sit in the opposition benches in Parliament, no BJP leader would bypass him and try to form a government.
Nothing above the party
Gadkari may be ambitious but he is not one who would do something to oppose Modi’s return as PM even if the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha falls. As some insiders point out, Gadkari may not be happy with the ways of Modi and Shah but he would certainly never do anything that harms the ultimate objectives of the BJP and the RSS.
Gadkari is not Yashwant Sinha, Shatrughan Sinha or Arun Shourie. As Gadkari has said, he cut his political teeth in his teens by pasting anti-Emergency posters in Nagpur’s back-lanes. His love for his party and its ideology surpasses his ambitions.
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald, Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.