What is Bharatiya Janata Party leader Nitin Gadkari up to? In the aftermath of the BJP’s defeats in elections in three North Indian states in December and with many questions being raised about the competence of the Narendra Modi government ahead of the upcoming general elections, Gadkari has been the rare senior BJP leader willing to put hard questions to his party. The Union minister of road transport and highways – and former party president – has declared that leaders must be held accountable and that failures must be addressed. This has prompted speculation that he is jockeying for power in a party that is entirely controlled by Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Some have asked whether the BJP’s allies, or even its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, would prefer Gadkari as India’s prime minister – particularly if the party does not win a simple majority as it did in 2014.
However, others believe that Gadkari is merely playing out a role that has been assigned to him by the party, appealing to one set of BJP supporters even as Modi and Shah continue to build their own narratives. On paper, Gadkari has denied that he has any ministerial ambitions, emphasising that the party will work together to bring Modi back for a second term.
His clarifications came as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh received a demand in December from the head of a government initiatve in Maharashtra that Modi be replaced by Gadkari as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Kishore Tiwari, the chairperson of Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavalamban Mission, wrote to RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat and general secretary Suresh Joshi that the BJP’s defeat in the Assembly elections held in November and December was the result of “arrogant leaders” who had made bad decisions about imposing demonetisation, botching up the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, and increased fuel prices.
Many of Gadkari’s remarks have led to him stealing the spotlight from Modi and Shah. Here are some comments that have raised eyebrows.
On February 2, Gadkari told former members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, that party workers should pay attention to their domestic responsibilities. “...One who can not manage his home can not manage the country,” he said in a statement that some read as a sly reference to Prime Minister Modi’s decision to abandon his wife several decades ago.
This came on the heels of another loaded remark during a speech to the BJP-affiliated transport outfit Navbharatiya Shiv Vahatuk Sanghatana in Mumbai on January 28. “People like leaders who make them dream, but if those dreams are not fulfilled, the citizens also beat up leaders,” Gadkari said. “So, you should show only those dreams that you are capable of fulfilling.”
A BJP spokesperson later attempted to clarify that Gadkari was talking about the Congress, but it was hard not to see these as jabs at Modi, whose “Acche Din” (good days) tagline during the 2014 campaign has turned into an ironic joke about this failed promises.
On January 13, addressing the 92nd Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, Gadkari told the audience at the literary conference that politicians should not meddle in cultural affairs. “Politics has its own limitations and we should learn that politicians should not interfere in other fields like education and literature,” he said. “Let those managing these fields do their work.”
His comments came after the organisers of the literary meeting withdrew an invitation to author Nayantara Sahgal to inaugurate the event, after workers of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena objected to it.
On Indira Gandhi
On January 7, speaking to women’s self-help groups in Nagpur, Gadkari described former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “a model of women empowerment”. He added that she “proved her mettle” without availing of job reservations for women.
In the same speech, he mentioned that he opposed the politics of caste and religion. “One makes progress on the basis of knowledge,” he said. “Do we ask about the religion of Saibaba, Gajanan Maharaj or Sant Tukdoji Maharaj? Have we ever asked about the caste of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar or Jotiba Phule?”
On election losses
Perhaps the most direct criticism of Modi came on December 25, when Gadkari spoke about the responsibility for defeat. This was not long after the BJP lost state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the Congress. “If I am the party president, and my MPs and MLAs are not doing well, then who is responsible? I am,” he told Intelligence Bureau officials in Delhi.
In the same speech, Gadkari asserted that tolerance was India’s “biggest asset”. He also invoked former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, even though the BJP frequently blames the country’s first prime minister for the country’s current problems. “I like Nehru’s sayings,” Gadkari said. “India is not a nation but a population.”
Adding that it was good to win elections, the minister warned, “If we cannot bring about socio-economic changes in the lives of people then it will not make a difference when you come to power, or go out of power”.
On December 22, three days before this speech, Gadkari reportedly said that leadership should have the “tendency to own up to defeat”. He was speaking at an event organised by the Pune District Urban Co-operative Banks Association.
However, a day later, he wrote on Twitter that his statements had been twisted. “In the last few days, I have noticed a sinister campaign by some opposition parties and a section of the media to twist my statements and use them out of context and draw politically motivated inferences to malign me and my party,” Gadkari said. He added that the reports attributed to him were out of context.
“Let me make it clear once and for all that conspiracies to create a wedge between me and the BJP leadership will never succeed,” he said. “I have been clarifying my position at various forums and shall continue to do so and expose these nefarious designs of our detractors.” Later that day, he insisted to reporters that his statements had no political overtones.
Earlier in October, while giving a television interview to actor Nana Patekar, Gadkari said that the BJP had made “tall promises” before coming to power. “Politics is a game of compulsions, limitations and contradictions,” he said. “We were very confident that we can never come to power. So our people suggested us, just to make tall promises. If we come to power, we won’t be responsible anyway! Now the problem is that people have voted us to power. Now people remind us of our promises along with dates. Nowadays we just laugh and move on.”
The video was later shared on Twitter by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. But Gadkari questioned the translation of comments and said the controversy was “baseless”.