Gadkari’s annus horribilis

Exactly 20 years ago, in the closing days of 1992, Queen Elizabeth II brought the expression “annus horribilis” into contemporary usage. It had been a terrible year for the lady. Her daughter got divorced. Her second son announced separation from his wife.

The marriage of her first son, Prince of Wales, and his wife not only broke down but became a long-running soap opera.
Nitin Gadkari hasn’t quite had as exciting a year. Even so, the BJP president — who is on a sort of extension-till-further-orders — will look back at 2012 with a sinking feeling. In terms of poll performance, personality and political positioning, he has suffered inordinately. He ends the year as the troubled figurehead of a caricature party bureaucracy. Far from being a compelling politician, he appears as not so much an idea whose time has gone but an idea whose time never arrived.
In 2012, Gadkari led the BJP to a series of setbacks in the states — the worst performance in Uttar Pradesh in decades, the narrow defeat in Uttarakhand that could have been prevented, the division in Karnataka that could wreck the party in the early summer of 2013. The one state where the party won an unqualified triumph — Gujarat — had scarcely any role or need for Gadkari or the ventriloquist clique running him.
On top of that, the bluff and bluster approach to public life, the adventurous language — particularly Gadkari’s use of the expression “chillar” to describe Arvind Kejriwal’s charges of wrongdoing — came to haunt him as the woes mounted. From the self-made entrepreneur who had set himself to impress fusty New Delhi, he was suddenly the misfit.
The siege mentality grew when the funding of the Purti Group, promoted by Gadkari, and its shell-company shareholders became public news. On the face of it, the BJP president’s business associates and dealings had taken recourse to a domestic version of the Mauritius route adopted by round-tripping foreign direct investors. Shell companies, often with dubious addresses and mysterious names, seemed to be his principal providers of capital.
Brave attempts were made to defend him specifically and such business practices generally. A feisty campaign was mounted on social media platforms — obviously by laptop-wielding supporters mobilised for the purpose, militantly attacking anybody who so much as tweeted against Gadkari. In the end, it couldn’t prevent the crippling of the man from Nagpur.
First-generation achievers, particularly businessmen and entrepreneurs from a social environment that values such achievement, can occasionally be reckless and epitomise a certain braggadocio. There is nothing innately wrong with that, except it doesn’t sit easily with the persona of a party such as the BJP, and not at a time and in a year when integrity and rectitude — or rather their absence — were overriding themes of concern for political stakeholders.
Gadkari realised this much too late. It was not just a question of the BJP president giving too many interviews (even as the Congress president gave too few, or none at all). It was also a question of the BJP president having nothing substantial to say. Further, there was the matter of the buccaneers he surrounded himself with. Ashutosh Mishra was all but given a Rajya Sabha nomination from Jharkhand; Ajay Sancheti was implicated in the coal scandal; controversial BSP reject Babu Singh Kushwaha was embraced by the BJP — Gadkari came to be known by the company he kept.
It could be contended that taking in Kushwaha was a justifiable gamble. He was charged with embezzlement but did command a vote bloc, and parties do take such risks before elections. What of the others, though? What of the factionalism and smugness the BJP national headquarters sought to encourage?
Sanjay Joshi was given responsibility of Uttar Pradesh even if he was thoroughly unsuited for the job — only to rile one individual. Vasundhara Raje considered leaving the party — only because one individual was allowed to rile her. B.S. Yeddyurappa practically entreated for an honourable settlement that would allow him to stay in the BJP with his dignity intact, but found Delhi distant and unmoved. The president was too busy covering his tracks and too bereft of any authority to work towards a solution.
Admittedly the problem was not just Gadkari’s. In the course of the year, he came to resemble the limitations and insecurities of his appointing agency, the section of the Sangh that would much rather control the BJP than have the BJP govern India.
The dogged, status quoist denialism this symptomises is in direct contrast to the propulsive energies of the party. These are now elsewhere, far outside the back-rooms of 11, Ashoka Road. It was plain for all to see on December 27, when Narendra Modi visited the party headquarters in New Delhi. As the cheers grew, as the electricity in the air became evident, the hapless Gadkari must have felt decidedly out of place.
In an ideal situation, Gadkari — and everybody else in the BJP really — should have known by mid-December if he was getting a second term as party president or he wasn’t. That decision will now be taken in early 2013. Despite the cussedness of his benefactors and the bombast of his protégés, it is possible and even probable that Gadkari will have to step down. The puzzle is about his successor, who will necessarily be a compromise between the immovable objects in Nagpur and the irresistible force from Gujarat. As the slogan of “Kendra mein Narendra” gathers steam, Gadkari will not be alone in feeling the heat.

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