Is anyone in the BJP listening -- to what Nitin Gadkari had to say, but possibly left unsaid? asks N Sathiya Moorthy.
In the midst of the Modi-Shah duo's continuing war cry for a 'Congress mukt Bharat' -- even after decimating it almost completely -- Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has surprised many -- particularly the 'nineties kids' and those that followed -- with his call that the nation needs the Congress.
It is a bold call, which even Congress revivalists like the G-23 ginger group has forgotten, and raises questions about the logic and rationale, if any, behind Gadkari's observations.
'Democracy runs on two wheels -- the ruling dispensation and the Opposition,' Gadkari, a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is reported to have told a newspaper interviewer in Pune. 'A strong Opposition is a need for democracy. Hence it is my honest wish that the Congress party should become stronger.'
Preposterous as it would seem in a federal polity, Gadkari did not hesitate to add, 'With the Congress weakened, its place is being taken by regional parties, which is not good for democracy.'
In the same breadth, the BJP veteran seems also to be taking pot shots at his own party for admitting all-comers from other parties.
'Those who follow Congress ideology should remain in the party and have faith in its ideals,' he said, as if taking a dig also those that seem wanting to jump from the sinking ship, as the Congress is being portrayed for close to a decade now.
Recalling his own experience of not deserting the BJP after the party had won only two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections (in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination), Gadkari said he had pooh-poohed suggestions for him to join a 'good party' (meaning Congress), and how his faith in the ideology and the patience and hard work of party cadres saw Atal Bihari Vajpayee becoming prime minister (the first one without a trace of Congress ideology), in the nineties.
Gadkari's prescription for Congressmen raises multiple questions.
One, does the party has it in it to be revived?
Two, do Congressmen have it in them for the long haul that such a revival entails?
Three, is it possible if the existing list of old and infamy vacate their seats and induct younger ones, for the party to think, talk and work for the future.
In the post-Emergency past, governments and leaders used to be voted out, not voted back in. Manmohan Singh in 2009 and Narendra Modi a decade later reversed this trend. Both won the respective elections not on anti-incumbency, but pro-incumbency.
In a way, Manmohan Singh's feat is better than Modi's as he was never ever considered as charismatic a leader or even as forceful and captivating speaker as the other. But Modi's victory in 2019 was complete. Full-stop.
Manmohan Singh could win, so could Sonia Gandhi before him in elections 2004, maybe because theirs were fresh and trust-worthy faces against the tired and old faces in the BJP.
When Modi moved from native Gujarat to distant Delhi, he made both Singh and Sonia look not only old and worn out, but also corrupt, conscience-less, 'anti-nationals' and worse.
That's the visible irony. Long after Modi had kicked out the BJP's old guard rather unceremoniously, Ashok Gehlot in the Rajasthan Congress and Kamal Nath (not to leave out Digvijaya Singh) in Madhya Pradesh would not clear the road for the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia.
The latter quit, the former rebelled, but could not go the same way. Numbers just did not stack up for Pilot. That's in a party where Sonia Gandhi had begun by giving freedom of action for state Congress leaders and party chief ministers -- thus ending the legacy of unstoppable factionalism, for which the party was known.
Whatever the truth or otherwise, the Modi campaign worked with the '90s kids, or the new generation propaganda worked. First within the BJP and then with the larger electorate. It continues to work, it would seem. Hence, also seems to be Gadkari's hidden message for his party. That a smarter propagandist could do it to the BJP what the BJP had done to the Congress.
Ask a Congressman from that era and he would argue that 2009 was the only time when the Indian electorate consciously voted in an intellectual as prime minister. That is if one left out the intellectual competence of Jawaharlal Nehru. Ask him why then did the same 21st century voter reject Singh and his party even more since then, he will have no answer, convincing or otherwise.
No one in the Congress is asking the right questions. Passing on the buck to the Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be the easy way out. No else wants to quit, but they want the Nehru-Gandhis to make way. Ask for a single name to replace them, they would quarrel -- openly or otherwise.
It is not unlikely whether the intelligent among them would want to head a party with near-empty coffers (as could be presumed after successive electoral defeats) to an election that he himself seems convinced that they can't and won't win.
It is also highly doubtful if the 'rebels' or 'revivalists' in the party have any road map or timeline as the BJP had worked since coming down to the ignominy of two seats in 1984. Through the decades since the Congress began losing votes and seats, even since 1984, no one in the party seems to have cared to pinpoint the short-comings and repair the same.
Once Sonia Gandhi organised a much-touted chintan-baitak in Himachal Pradesh, but that was in the nineties -- the first and last of them, it would seem.
It's also in the nature of the party, which began as an umbrella organisation of diverse social and ideological opinions, to fight the colonial rulers. The party is unable to change that character even as much as shifting ideological gears from Nehruvian 'democratic socialism' to 'market capitalism' of the nineties to 'reforms with a human face', as Singh put it after the party had lost the crucial 1996 elections.
That is the bane of the party. It has been compounded by the absence of fresh blood and hence fresh thoughts since Sanjay Gandhi inducted most of those even in the G-23 in during the Emergency and pre-Emergency days. Some of them survived and grew through the transition under Rajiv Gandhi, and made sure that no grass grew under their feet, just as they are blaming the party's first family, of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage.
It is here that the Congress, or any other party, can learn its lessons from the post-Ayodhya past of the BJP. The process began quietly and efficiently even at the post-Janata Party birth of the BJP, as the born again form of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Up to a point, the Vajpayee-L K Advani duo promoted acolytes both at the national and state-levels, most of them identified with the latter than the former.
Soon, however, when BJP began winning assembly elections and forming governments in multiple states, those satraps either had limited freedom of operation and bossing over those with and under them, or struck own roots.
It began noticeably with Kalyan Singh, whose rise the two at the top put down in the 1998-1999 period. No explanations were offered, nor anything asked for. It was made to look like a seamless operation, bottom up.
Did Modi learn his lessons, watching it from a distance?
L'affaire Kalyan Singh could not stop the likes of Modi, B S Yediyurappa, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia, all striking on their own after a point -- and striking big. Where they grew too big for the shoes, unlike in the case of Kalyan Singh, the voters took care of their inflated egos. Some have mended their ways, others remain to be tested on this score.
However, it was Modi's emergence and election as the party's prime ministerial face in 2014, and his ability to stay at the top since then, side-stepping forgotten mentor and protector Advani, that has made the BJP what it is today --- appealing to new generation voters who had got tired of old faces, parties, policies and ideologies.
Without saying so, Gadkari seems to be pointing to the fall side of such a construct.
The lessons are not far to seek. The way Nehru started losing the nation after the 1962 Chinese debacle, and Indira Gandhi did post the Emergency, in and for the Congress, it is clear that under Indian conditions, leaders who win elections are also the ones who lose elections. The party machinery, ideology and the rest are unavoidable and at times much-wanted appendages -- as the RSS cadre strength is to the BJP and Modi.
The way the Congress went about it and went down with it is what Gadkari seems wanting to caution his own party about. By saying what he said at Pune, did he raise the unasked question: After Modi, who?
The question was once hotly debated, not only in the Congress but also all across the nation and abroad: After Nehru, who?
A similar question was also asked, though muted, in the case of Indira Gandhi, but her assassination made all analyses and responses unnecessary.
Come the 2024 elections to the Lok Sabha, and all these in the case of the present day BJP too might have become stale for the existing voters and the new generation voters with access to social media unlike their predecessors. This is also what Gadkari seems to be cautioning the party about -- that electoral fortune is a cycle, and there is no permanency.
By the same token, by referring to his continuing loyalty to the BJP (RSS?) ideology, without defining what he has in mind -- and what he does not have -- Gadkari may have thrown his hat into the ring, once more, as he had done way before the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 and 2024. In doing so, if it's any, he has not acknowledged his intent and its content.
By talking about 'ideology', is he indicating that what is happening now is not the real BJP ideology? After all, for a Sanghi, Vajpayee was a 'secularist', not a 'religionist'. Advani was the other way round, or so was seen to be so. Rather, the two were playing good-cop bad-cop, either for the gallery or in true form.
Either way, once Modi perched on the rooftop, he had bypassed Advani with all his short, medium and long-term plans for self and the party, effortlessly and almost overnight.
The nation's character and that of the polity has been shaken out of recognition. The simple but powerful phrase 'nationalism', for instance, has a new meaning in Modi's India as against the all-inclusive form it has had throughout the previous century and beyond.
Is it also the angst of the likes of Gadkari, who seem still belonging to that era?
All of it leaves the question on Gadkari's reference to 'regional powers', unanswered. The reference is obviously to the way the Congress began losing ground to regional parties, never to recover -- beginning with the Communists in Kerala and West Bengal, the Dravidian polity in Tamil Nadu, and personality-driven parties like NTR's Telugu Desam Party, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, now under his son Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal -- not to forget, Naveen Patnaik with his Biju Janata Dal.
In Dravidian Tamil Nadu, there is this uniqueness of a divided DMK since the early seventies, providing the two poles to what is still a bi-polar polity for all intents and contents.
In each of these cases, the BJP has replaced the Congress, in individual states outside peninsular India. The regional parties, divided or united, have survived and grown. Gadkari's message for the BJP is that on a wrong day, the BJP could thus lose to the Congress, if and if only Congressmen stick to the party -- as the regional parties are here to stay.
Or, it could even lose to a combination of regional parties -- this time, with or without Congress support -- as happened in 1996. Without batting an eyelid and no communication of the social media kind, the voter in 1996 ensured that he got a non-Congress government that was anti-BJP in character. That is also what the likes of Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrasekhar Rao have in mind -- but with the self as the fulcrum, driving force and prime ministerial candidate, pre-poll.
This is not the first time Gadkari has made a political statement capable of multiple interpretations, even while sounding innocuous and sincere. In August last, again at a media house function, this one in the national capital, he called for 'introspection' by political leaders. He also described Vajpayee and Nehru as 'ideal leaders', the only one in Modi's BJP to confer the honour on the latter.
The reasons behind Gadkari's logic are not far to seek, or so it seems. Most regional parties have already passed on the mantle to the next generation, which too seems to have been accepted, unlike what the Congress had hoped for in the past, and some idle thinkers in the BJP seem to be doing since.
There are multiple examples, of Stalin, Chandrababu Naidu, Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, Akhilesh Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, H D Kumaraswamy and Uddhav Thackeray, among others, having stepped into their father's shoes, belying national parties's hopes to the contrary. Stalin, Uddhav and KCR are already grooming their sons from a larger regional political perspective.
Even Mamata has been grooming her nephew Abhishek Banerjee for a future leadership role -- though it would be for West Bengal's voters to decide his fate in his time. In the absence of such a scheme, Mayawati seems to have fallen by the way side already. That's also the problem with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. Both MayAwati and Jayalalithaa in a way subverted their mentors. They were afraid someone would do it to them -- hence ensured that they kept all options at a distance.
The rest of the regional polity is intact and is growing. Contextualised to the circumstances, Gadkari's message to the BJP is clear, though not loud: That sitting and sleeping on the laurels -- and or continuing with the current phase of diversionary tactics and stonewalling of Opposition demands and public opinion -- will have a price to pay.
Indira Gandhi (Kuo oil deal, 1981) and Rajiv Gandhi (Bofors scam, later in the same decade) found the cost in their time, and that is what the Congress is still paying for the rut that was allowed to set in at the time -- and with retrospective effect.
On their good day, politicians have the finger on people's emotions. On their bad day, the politicians lose it to the better sense and sensibilities of the voter. No one possibly believed that the 2-G scam was worth Rs 1.76 lakh crore, the 'notional loss' that then CAG Vinod Rai fixed, as it suited his political sympathies. But everyone wanted the political class punished, making an example of the ruling Congress of the time at the Centre, and the DMK alliance partner in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK has since returned to power, and is dominating the Dravidian political landscape as it had never done since the 1967-1972 period. But the Congress, which took the vicarious/fiduciary responsibility for an alleged crime, of which a CBI court in distant Delhi has since absolved the DMK's A Raja and Kanimozhi, continued paying the price, in a complex web of political morality and electoral disasters.
Is anyone in the BJP listening -- to what Gadkari had to say, but possibly left unsaid?
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.