New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has heralded the new year with a new leadership and a new style of functioning. Nitin Gadkari, 52, who took over as its president on 25 December, wants to imbue India’s main opposition party with a corporate credo—complete with target plans and performance appraisals.
It comes naturally to Gadkari, a successful entrepreneur with hands-on experience of running a Rs400 crore firm, the Purti Group. And some within the party believe that is what the BJP needs, after losing back-to-back general elections, being thrown out of power in several states and witnessing the desertion by many vote-winning leaders in the past six years.
New approach: BJP president Nitin Gadkari says the need of the hour for the party is to think beyond the divisions of caste, creed and faith. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
But political opponents as well as pundits doubt if a “managerial” approach will deliver the party from such a crisis. Moreover, they have grave misgivings about a low-key president who has never won an election and was unheard of outside his state of Maharashtra until his ascension, being the right man for the job.
“Increasing the vote bank by 10% is our aim, and for this we would be targeting four sections—scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, minorities and unorganized sector workers,” said Gadkari.
Entrepreneurship with a social outlook, he added, is the surest way to succeed in politics. “My own career is an example to prove that social entrepreneurship and touching people’s lives with enterprises can help build credibility among the masses,” he said.
The Purti Group employs 5,000 people directly and runs a wide variety of projects. These include a 26MW power generation unit, a co-generation power plant of 8MW capacity, a bio-fertilizer plant, a cooperative supermarket and a solvent extraction plant.
The group’s latest venture is providing cost-effective solar fencing technology to farmers. And one of Gadkari’s corporate teams, led by his son, is negotiating with a British firm in London to import the technology to produce sugar from beetroot.
Gadkari seems to have a flow chart and a target plan for everything. Within 15 days of taking over, he announced a monthly performance audit of his team members and a compulsory stay of 10 days every month in the states for central office bearers.
The president himself works till half past one at night, and maintains a back office in Nagpur which sends him detailed profiles of every visitor before they step into his office.
“Corporate resources can be used for creating employment opportunities in rural areas. Conventional and non-conventional energy sources need to be used to their optimum, which is visible in the various projects launched by the Purti Group in the Vidarbha region,” said the former public works minister in the Maharashtra cabinet, referring to his company’s projects in one of the poorest parts of the state.
But his plan of political reform doesn’t end with corporatization. Gadkari said the need of the hour for the BJP is to think beyond the divisions of caste, creed and faith. That may not be easy for a party that owes its political rise to a movement to pull down the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya and build a Ram temple in its place.
That movement 20 years ago split the Indian polity along religious lines and catapulted the BJP to the forefront of electoral politics, and it eventually captured power in New Delhi from 1998-2004. But voters’ waning interest in the temple movement and other religiously divisive issues espoused by the BJP has seen its fortunes decline since then.
Gadkari also talks of building political consensus on issues of social development. “I am ready to arrive upon a common minimum programme for social development with all parties, so that politics does not hinder issues like fighting hunger, unemployment and farmer suicides,” he said.
His multi-coloured political career will be of help in this regard. Gadkari used to head the local unit of the workers’ wing of India’s ruling Congress party, the Indian National Trade Union Congress. He also worked under Communist Party of India’s general secretary A.B. Bardhan during an agitation of cloth mill workers in Maharashtra.
“If Rahul Gandhi (Congress general secretary) is doing a good thing, let him do it. I can only appreciate him and try to replicate the right approach. I also believe that no party or leader can have a monopoly over good work,” said Gadkari.
As BJP president, his first directive was to put a ban on visitors bringing him bouquets and garlands. When a party worker sought another way to felicitate him, Gadkari installed a charity box in front of his office to collect donations for Vidarbha’s farmers.
“I have managed to collect Rs1.75 lakh from the donation box and the amount has been sent to Vidarbha. Organizations should have a professional approach, but with a compulsory social outlook. That is my learning from my entrepreneurial ventures,” said Gadkari. He added that he will launch the “BJP’s first social project” in February, without elaborating.
Gadkari replaced Rajnath Singh, who stepped down as BJP president at the end of his tenure. His ascension is being viewed as a generational change within the party, coming on the heels of 57-year-old Sushma Swaraj replacing L.K. Advani as leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
But his ascent to the party presidency was hardly expected. Gadkari pipped more high profile leaders such as former Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha to the post. His selection also came amid acrimony with top leaders blaming each other for election defeats and former Union minister Jaswant Singh being expelled from the party.
Now, some party leaders are pinning their hopes on Gadkari’s “freshness”, and view his decision not to contest elections during his presidentship as a blessing.
Bouquets and brickbats
“I have no regret in agreeing that there was a lot of distrust among the leaders in the party, which proved costly. Gadkari is a fresh slate and brings with him a tendency to look at things with a positive approach,” said a senior leader, who does not want to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media. “This attitude, added with his decision to keep away from electoral politics and (pay) cent per cent attention to organizational matters will ultimately benefit the party in the long run.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, is banking on Gadkari’s experience as state-level minister to deliver. RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy praises both his intent and ability.
“Gadkari has made it clear from Day 1 that he wants others to perform and excel. His experience of changing the public sector scenario in Maharashtra is a proof of his capability, which can turn any unresponsive organization into an active one,” he said.
But political opponents are not so sure. Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari said Gadkari’s lack of charisma will put paid to his lofty plans. “Change in the working is an internal matter of BJP, but I doubt the ability of its new chief to inspire confidence in his fellow men,” he said.
Tiwari challenges Gadkari to put his idea of social responsibility and political consensus to test. “Can he convince his chief ministers to stop playing politics on the issue of price rise and sit down with the Central government to come out with a solution to the burning issue?” he asked.
Political analysts, too, are critical of Gadkari’s ideas, and sceptical of his chances of reviving the BJP. “His approach seems to be more managerial than political. Any application of corporate ethics would be incomplete without a liberal core ideology, which BJP lacks,” says Jyotirmaya Sharma, a professor of political science at Hyderabad University. “Gadkari’s real test as a political leader,” he added, “would depend on his response to real political issues, which we are yet to see.”