Gadkari was a power point-happy technocrat, comfortable in the company of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. After all, he was one himself. An upper-caste Brahmin from Nagpur, Gadkari’s moment of fame came when as Maharashtra’s PWD minister during the Shiv Sena-BJP rule (1995-99), he did the unthinkable. Gadkari took on the likes of Pramod Mahajan and Bal Thackeray, who were in favour of handing over the project of the construction of India’s first autobahn, the Mumbai-Pune expressway, to a powerful industrial group. Gadkari, instead, devised a unique model that helped raise the state’s first super-fast highway at half the cost, besides building as many as 55 flyovers in Mumbai.
During those four years — incidentally, his only brush with power so far — Gadkari was a man in a hurry. For, he knew this was the opportunity to showcase his abilities and create a space for himself, which otherwise, thanks to his caste, was not so easy. Gadkari was successful in this endeavour and created an image in the minds of upwardly mobile urban middle-class voters, especially Brahmins, who viewed him as “their man”. But it also created an arguably misleading impression about his leadership abilities.
Gadkari was no mass leader, or a strategist. His only strength: a strong bond with the RSS. Then why did the Sangh Parivar choose him to lead their political outfit? Gadkari grew in stature only after the untimely exit of another Brahmin leader from the state who went on to attain national stature, Pramod Mahajan. Unlike Gadkari, Mahajan was quick to grasp the political dynamics. He grew fast enough to leave the RSS behind. Mahajan, many may recall, in his later days, was not exactly in the good books of the RSS. He seemed to underline all the ills generally associated with politics.
But then, that’s precisely the dilemma the RSS has been facing for quite some time. As the BJP grew and widened its base, it absorbed a large number of leaders who don’t owe allegiance to the RSS. As a political party, the BJP has its own compulsions, which the RSS refuses to acknowledge. This results in constant friction in the BJP between RSS-backed leaders and those not from the RSS school of thought. In the current arrangement, the RSS lends key functionaries to the BJP, who are basically back office managers. Called sangathan mantris or organisation secretaries, they are a bridge between the RSS and its political outfit. Some (a famous example being Narendra Modi) developed a taste for electoral politics.
Rather than being happy backseat drivers pushing the Sangh agenda, these sangathan mantris got into active politics. The Sangh may disagree but, after all, power has its own charm. The conversion of swayamsevaks into political workers/leaders has caused heartburn in the RSS. The Sangh was so worried about the BJP-isation of its organisation that, at one point, it thought of severing all ties with the BJP. But in reality, it was almost impossible, because the RSS happens to be the holding company and HR supplier/manager of the BJP, contrary to the claims made by its seniors. The RSS has consistently failed to come to terms with the fact that a subsidiary outfit can outgrow the parent and a “protege” can outsmart the “mentor”.
Here lies the genesis of the current crisis in the BJP. The RSS refuses to accept this reality and also the fact that the BJP leadership, at times, may not be in sync with the Sangh. In denial, the Sangh was exposed to this truth when Advani, Yashwant Sinha and others stubbornly refused to toe the RSS line on continuing with Gadkari as party president till the 2014 elections. The RSS was keen on Gadkari not because it had faith in his strategic abilities, but because he was more than willing to work as the RSS proxy in the BJP. With no base of his own, Gadkari was happy being the RSS man, a good swayamsevak. Not as “politically smart” as Mahajan or Modi, there was very little danger of him outperforming or defying the parivar.
The Sangh could have had a say in the matter, but certainly not in an election year. Having messed up in Karnataka, UP and Jharkhand, there was growing resentment against Gadkari in the BJP. Gadkari allowed Karnataka to slip away from the BJP by doing very little to avert the crisis. His decision to induct “tainted” leaders like Babu Singh Kushwaha ahead of the UP assembly elections raised questions about his leadership abilities. Gadkari also botched things up for the BJP in Jharkhand. All this only underlined his weak political instincts and the lack of leadership acumen. Incidentally, these may not be shortcomings from the RSS point of view, but they are serious disqualifications for a political party.
At one point, the BJP had leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who could reach out to the people over and above the shoulders of the party and the RSS. With the BJP having no one as able as the former prime minister, or anywhere close to him, the RSS thought it could have its say in who becomes the BJP president. But that was not to be. Political reality forced other BJP leaders to question the RSS. The situation could have gone out of control had Yashwant Sinha contested and garnered enough support.
Hence, the RSS found a way out in Rajnath Singh. This comes as a face saver for the BJP and the RSS, more so for the latter. The BJP had no option but to accept Singh — also an RSS man — who not so long ago was criticised for his lack of vision. The dilemma for the BJP will continue till it finds its new-age Vajpayee-Advani duo — a mass leader and a strategist. It is hoping that Rajnath Singh, a Thakur, and Narendra Modi, an OBC, will emerge as the new combine.
And for the RSS, it will have to own up or give up the BJP, the earlier the better, failing which the situation is unlikely to improve. After all, it is a tussle between a patriarchal organisation that has its sights set on a distant horizon and a political party which, understandably, cannot see beyond the next election.
The writer is executive editor, ‘Loksatta’, firstname.lastname@example.org