Nitin Gadkari isn’t quite known to mind his language. A few weeks after he took over as BJP president, he expressed himself with typical candour to a group of journalists: “I know you must be wondering who is this bloody ‘mota’ guy from nowhere. I want to tell all of you I am on a mission, not here for commission!” Three years later, those words may well come to haunt him as he is slowly pushed into exile from the Delhi durbar.
In this open season against corruption, it would be easy to see Gadkari as yet another high-profile ‘target’ of the growing public anger against political corruption. What might have been dismissed as ‘sharp’ business practices in another period is now evidence of yet another politician trying to wink at the law by a mix of recklessness and subterfuge. Why else would a self-proclaimed ‘social entrepreneur’ choose to set up a maze of fictitious shell companies unless he believed he could get away with it using political clout?
And yet, the eclipse of Gadkari is not just about a popular rage against the neta. It also reflects a growing crisis within the country’s premier Opposition party. In the last three years, in the relentless gaze on the wrongdoings of the UPA 2, the BJP has been in soft focus. And yet, the travails of the BJP at times suggest that its future is just as uncertain as the Congress’s.
The Congress is a private limited company tightly controlled by one family. The BJP, on the other hand, is increasingly resembling a shell company where the directors exist on paper, but the real investors have their address in Keshav Kunj in Nagpur. The Gandhi family may have escaped stern scrutiny but at least its top leaders have to face the people during elections. The RSS leadership, on the other hand, remains an extra-constitutional grouping which can determine the fate of the BJP without being tested in electoral waters. It is this conflict between an elected, accountable BJP leadership and an unelected, unaccountable RSS that lies at the heart of the BJP’s present crisis.
Gadkari was appointed president of the party as a result of this conflict within. The 2009 election debacle, LK Advani’s refusal to retire gracefully and the squabbling between the BJP’s Generation Next leadership appeared to have convinced the RSS that the time had come to stage an internal coup. So, disregarding all claimants from its Delhi parliamentary wing or any of its upwardly mobile chief ministers, the RSS anointed an ‘outsider’ as its president, someone whom they hoped would rise above factional politics. As the friendly neighbourhood swayamsevak from Nagpur, Gadkari was ideally placed to restore the RSS’s dominance over the BJP’s decision-making.
While the RSS has tried to sustain the fiction of being distanced from politics, the fact is that there have been only two periods in the Jan Sangh-BJP’s history where the RSS has actually shown signs of a retreat. The first was in the aftermath of the collapse of the Janata Party experiment when a growing disillusionment with the BJP’s so-called Gandhian socialism and an attraction towards Indira Gandhi’s soft Hindu politics saw many Sangh members drift towards supporting the Congress. The second period was when AB Vajpayee asserted his autonomy in the post-1999 NDA. The personality cult that was built around Vajpayee as the ‘Man India Awaits’ clearly appeared to dwarf the RSS.
But as the Advani-Vajpayee era drew to a close, the RSS decided to reassert itself as the pater familias of the saffron brotherhood. The rise of Narendra Modi has only accelerated this process. Modi, in many ways, is the antithesis of the original vision of a swayamsevak. In the RSS worldview, community matters more than self: common rituals, common training and an austere lifestyle are seen to bind swayamsevaks into an organisational whole where ideology matters more than the individual. Modi may have cut his teeth in an RSS shakha, but clearly he has chosen a highly personalised style of functioning where the organisation becomes subservient to the cult of Modi. In the process, an entire generation of RSS loyalists in Gujarat has been edged out by newer, more ambitious political entrants. Even Sangh offshoots like the VHP have been pushed to the margins in Gujarat.
While Modi’s experiment has met with spectacular success in Gujarat, the RSS is worried that the politics of Gandhinagar could now be replicated on a larger stage in Delhi. It is this fear of Modi above all else which prompted the Sangh to prop up Gadkari as their protective armour. In every interview when the BJP president was asked about the BJP’s prime ministerial contenders, he would smile, “We have six to seven people in our party who can be prime ministers. Narendra Modi is one of them.”
By seeking to equate Modi with other BJP leaders, Gadkari was trying to emphasise the notion of a ‘collective’ leadership, a concept which is fiercely patronised by the RSS. Unfortunately, the Sangh is caught in a time warp, its ideas shaped by the past and not by the changing realities. This is an era of presidential- style politics where individuals have to be strongly projected to define a ‘brand’. A Gadkari-style leader could never be a magnet to attract new voters to the BJP nor could he ever really assert his authority over a fractured party.
However, it is now apparent that the RSS will not admit the failure of its Gadkari experiment. Nor will it loosen the umbilical cord with the BJP and allow it to function as an autonomous political outfit. A second term as party president for the beleaguered Gadkari appears unlikely now. A Gadkari may be dispensable as a ‘damaged’ politician, but who will hold the RSS accountable?
The views expressed by the author are personal