A big point of deliberation in the Indian capital’s political circles, euphemistically termed Lutyens’ Delhi, is if former BJP president and Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, has overplayed his hand.
It is openly discussed if, after being recently dropped from the BJP Parliamentary Board, it is a matter of time before the leader, once considered by many as having the silent support of the RSS leadership, is excluded from the Union cabinet, too.
Will he face the axe?
The question has assumed greater urgency because speculation is also rife, given that there are vacancies because of the resignations of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and RCP Singh from the Union cabinet, of an impending reshuffle.
The reorganisation of the Parliamentary Board, a largely ornamental body in the current dispensation, necessary for establishing continued existence of decision-making processes and institutions within the party, indicated that Modi had embarked on working with new people, a completely new team with none of the old guard.
Also read: “Govt not taking decisions on time”: Gadkari does some plain-speaking
Even in the current union cabinet, only four members have been in office since 2014. Others were either promoted after having served for some time as junior ministers, or were inducted in later years. Of the four who have continued since 2014, there is general viewpoint that Narendra Singh Tomar and Smriti Irani will likely remain in office longer than Rajnath Singh and Gadkari.
Starting with the Road Transport and Highways Ministry after the BJP won the General Elections in 2014, Gadkari gradually added – due to resignations or, in one case, the tragic death of Gopinath Munde – the portfolios of water resources, river development, and Ganga rejuvenation to his list of responsibilities. He also looked after the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Ministry for some months. But none of these stayed with him after 2019 and he now manages just his ‘original’ ministry for which, he has undoubtedly made a name as ‘performer’.
Speculations over Gadkari gained currency because of a series of statements that were attributed to him. These were considered “loose” and “almost mocking” the party leadership besides “projecting himself” as the only senior BJP leader who followed “principles of political morality”.
At a public meeting in Nagpur late last month to honour a former state legislative council member, in the presence of several RSS bigwigs, Gadkari said that he thought “a lot about when I should quit politics. There are more things worth doing in life than politics.”
Elaborating on that, he said, “We need to understand what the word politics means. Is politics samajkaran (social work), rashtrakaran (nation building), vikaskaran (developmental work) or just sattakaran (a game of power)?”
In the tiny circle of the power elite in Delhi, this statement was interpreted as ‘accusative’ – that Gadkari was suggesting that currently politics is all about acquisition of power and wielding it.
Gadkari also said that politics was now merely a game of “contradictions, compulsions and limitations, and one does not know what happens when. As they say, anything can happen in politics.” This assertion was interpreted by the party leadership as an instance of him suggesting that he was not comfortable in his position.
This statement followed several others wherein his utterances led to several raised eyebrows over a considerable period of time and these have been detailed in several reports, including in The Federal.
The fact that the latest statement: “Time is the biggest capital. The biggest problem is the government is not taking decisions on time,” was made after being dropped from the Parliamentary Board, suggests that Gadkari has decided to walk the razor’s edge.
Writing on the wall
The most important matter to ponder is why he is openly daring the party leadership or Prime Minister Narendra Modi more specifically, to take action against him.
In recent weeks, from early July precisely, one has witnessed the re-emergence of energy in the opposition space. This has happened in different camps – the regional parties and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
While the state level players are buoyed by the developments in Bihar – the move of four AIMIM legislators to the RJD and later followed by Nitish Kumar dramatically shifting from the NDA to the Mahagathbandhan – the AAP appears to have come out the better of the BJP in the slanging match over revdi or freebee politics.
For some time, it has been palpable that a significant section in the RSS and the BJP are of the opinion that the Modi regime is walking on thin ice and it is merely a few weeks away from a dramatic turnaround in its prospects.
It is true that similar sentiments were voiced previously too: the whole of 2018 and the first month of 2019 was spent in imagining the 2019 elections, giving the BJP a weaker mandate and its tally falling appreciably short of a majority of its own.
Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of the brutal second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, many concluded, even within the Sangh Parivar, that the BJP would perform miserably in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Yet, nothing like that happened and the party was voted back to office in both states.
Also read: BJP’s big reshuffle: No Yogi; Gadkari out; Yediyurappa and Fadnavis in
Gadkari, like Modi and his closest aide, Amit Shah, is no political greenhorn and would be aware that in any case, his time at the helm of the party is not indefinite, especially after Modi initiated the process of packing his deck with absolute loyalists.
Between 2009 and 2013 when Gadkari was BJP president, Modi had repeated run-ins with the party leadership in Delhi. In 2014, when Modi became Prime Minister and moved to Delhi, he required the support of people who knew how to ply the system and Gadkari was one of them.
After having evolved his own mastery, there is actually little need of a leader like Gadkari who can sound the note of discordance. Modi has been known as a firm believer in ‘need-based’ relationships and, by that logic, Gadkari can expect to remain part of the Union cabinet only till when Modi thinks he is indispensable in managing the affairs of his own ministry.
The moment Modi is confident of managing the Road Transport and Highways Ministry, someone or the other will discreetly indicate to Gadkari that his time was up and it was best for him to put in his papers.
That would be no surprise to the Nagpur man. After all, as many as 69 leaders who were part of the Council of Ministers at some point or the other after 2014, are now cooling their heels. He certainly is preparing for the post-Modi era, provided there is one.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. He has also written ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)