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Gadkari may sink the BJP with him

November 20, 2012 21:19 IST

'The Gadkari issue is not about staying on the right side of the law, it is about public perception. How does the public perceive Nitin Gadkari?' asks T V R Shenoy.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

The consensus is that the universe cannot contain both an irresistible force and an immovable object. If they did exist and came into conflict both would probably be annihilated.

Take a look at the BJP version of 'Irresistible Force vs Immovable Object'. Ram Jethmalani is one of India's most formidable attorneys. S Gurumurthy is one of India's most brilliant chartered attorneys. These titans have taken opposing stances over Nitin Gadkari.

Ram Jethmalani has publicly demanded that Nitin Gadkari should quit the party presidency. S Gurumurthy said the BJP president is not guilty of money laundering. I respect both men enormously, but on this issue I must say that my old friend from Chennai may be on the wrong side of history.

The Gadkari issue is not about staying on the right side of the law, it is about public perception. How does the public perceive Nitin Gadkari?

The first perception is that the BJP president is a rich man. That is undeniable, and it carries the baggage -- possibly unfair -- that his wealth makes him India's Mitt Romney, a man out of touch with most Indians.

He didn't help his own cause when his first notable act after becoming the party chief was to stage an elaborate marriage ceremony for his son; it rivalled the multi-crore extravaganza arranged in 1995 by Jayalalithaa for her 'foster-son', V N Sudhakaran.

This leads to the second perception, that Nitin Gadkari is at home only with other rich men. The BJP president strengthened this view when he nominated Ajay Sancheti and Anshuman Mishra to the Rajya Sabha. The first was duly elected; the nomination of the second had to be withdrawn after senior party leaders objected, leading to much public slanging that ended only after Arun Jaitley threatened to sue Anshuman Mishra.

That was a picnic compared to the storm gathering around Ajay Sancheti (elected to the Rajya Sabha in April 2012). Ajay Sancheti's SMS Infrastructure reportedly won a coal block in 2007 for Rs 129.60 per metric ton when others in the same area went for Rs 552 per metric ton. This, according to the Comptroller & Auditor General, cost the exchequer Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion).

How does the BJP take up the coal scam when one of its own MPs, the handpicked nominee of its president, has been dragged into the same mess?

And so the third perception -- the one that is fatal -- is that Nitin Gadkari is not just wealthy but that there is a huge question mark about how he made his money. The original accusations by Anjali Damania and Arvind Kejriwal may not have carried much weight, but they opened the gates to other investigations.

The focus on the reigning BJP president has now gone well beyond the financing of Nitin Gadkari's Purti Group; many question whether he ever deserved to lead the principal Opposition party.

What exactly has Nitin Gadkari achieved after being catapulted to the top?

Politically, the Gadkari era has been a flop. The Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls were a disaster, the BJP's strength falling from 51 MLAs in 2007 to just 47 in 2012. The Congress has even fewer, just 28, but that was actually an improvement over its 21 MLAs in the previous assembly.

(The first trends showed the BJP leading in as many as ninety constituencies. A beaming Prakash Javadekar, the BJP spokesman, came before the cameras to claim that it was all Nitin Gadkari's doing. As the Samajwadi Party storm swept away this initial bravado, it was as if the Duckworth Lewis system had been applied to politics, with the final projected score being ever lower.)

The BJP did worse than before in Punjab, falling from 19 seats in 2007 to 12 seats in 2012. Infighting cost it victory in Uttarakhand; it won 34 seats in 2007, but only 31 in 2012 -- particularly cruel because that was just one short of the Congress.

The win in Goa owes almost everything to Manohar Parrikar, just as the victory of the Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance in Bihar was a tribute to Nitish Kumar. Nitin Gadkari had, at best, a marginal role to play in those states. But there have been several instances where he intervened; none worked well for his party.

Nitin Gadkari is the first president of any party to remove two chief ministers because they were not 'accommodating' enough, General B C Khanduri in Uttarakhand and Sadananda Gowda in Karnataka. He was forced to bring back General Khanduri at the eleventh hour, and we have no idea what drama might play out in Karnataka.

(Sonia Gandhi has resisted calls for removing Prithiviraj Chavan from Maharashtra. You know the BJP president is in trouble when the Congress boss can claim the high ground.)

Speaking of Karnataka, B S Yeddyurappa claimed that he was promised a good deal by Nitin Gadkari. Whatever one thinks of the former chief minister of Karnataka the fact remains that the BJP president has never denied these reports.

This leads to the fourth perception of the BJP president, that he is reluctant to support honest men.

What is the sum of Nitin Gadkari's achievements as party boss?

The BJP has lost ground in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. He was instrumental in removing honest men from chief ministerships. He demonstrated poor judgment in giving Rajya Sabha tickets.

This is the fifth perception of Nitin Gadkari, that he is simply not a very good politician, and that his failings may sink the party along with the man.

The Gadkari issue threatens to stain the RSS too since Nitin Gadkari was an RSS nominee. And there is a perception that it is the RSS that is keeping him in office.

Talk of 'saving face' rings hollow. The only honourable exit would have been quitting quickly and demanding a probe. As Digvijay Singh taunted, 'Advaniji resigned immediately when he was implicated in the Jain Hawala Scam in 1996.' Nobody could answer that jibe.

Over time the Congress has almost gained immunity from scandals. That is not true of the BJP, whose success or failure depends on its perceived ethical behaviour. Any hint of equivalence between the Congress and the BJP will hurt only the latter.

The moral of the story, as my friend S Gurumurthy reportedly tweeted, is that the president of a political party should not have any business interests.

The RSS was banned in 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Sardar Patel knew better, writing to Jawaharlal Nehru on 27 February, 1948 that '...the RSS was not involved in it at all.' But nobody would say so publicly; when the ban was lifted the RSS saw the need to have some political party allied to itself.

The RSS requested Veer Savarkar's advice. 'Why don't you just back the Hindu Mahasabha?' the veteran asked. The messenger said something about only wanting his good wishes. Veer Savarkar responded, 'You have my blessings. But in fifty years this new party of yours will be either another Hindu Mahasabha or another Congress.'

I hope somebody in the RSS remembers those words -- and guides the BJP appropriately.

For more columns by Mr Shenoy, please click here.

T V R Shenoy