Union minister Nitin Gadkari on Saturday said he hoped that the Congress becomes stronger and that its leaders do not switch sides, Lokmat reported. Gadkari made the remarks during a question and answer session at a journalism awards function organised by the newspaper.

“Democracy runs on two wheels – the ruling party and the opposition,” the Bharatiya Janata Party leader said. “A democracy needs a strong opposition. So, I sincerely hope that the Congress becomes stronger.”

The Union minister cited the example of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and said that he respected [then Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader] Atal Bihari Vajpayee even after he lost in the elections.

This was the second in recent months that Gadkari has praised Nehru, who is frequently the subject of criticism from BJP leaders. In August, he had described Nehru and Vajpayee as “ideal leaders”, and had said that all political parties should introspect about their conduct in Parliament.

On Saturday, Gadkari also said due to weakening of the Congress, regional parties were taking over its space. He said such a development is not good for democracy. The Union minister said that Congress leaders should stick to their beliefs and remain in the party.

Gadkari said that in the early 1980s, former Congress leader from Nagpur Shrikant Jichkar had advised him to leave the BJP and join the Congress. “However, I stuck to the BJP, and the party’s fortunes rose under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership,” he said.

In the recently-concluded Assembly elections, the Congress had managed to win only 55 of the 690 seats spread across the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. It lost Punjab to the Aam Aadmi Party and failed to wrest power from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won with a comfortable majority, Congress won just two seats in the 403-member state Assembly.

In all states except Uttarakhand, the Congress’ vote share and the number of seats plummeted.

The party is now in power in just two states – Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Maharashtra, the Congress is in a coalition government with the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party.