New Delhi: A man who has never won a parliamentary or state assembly election has emerged as the frontrunner to replace Rajnath Singh as president of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Nitin Gadkari, 52, chief of the BJP’s Maharashtra unit, keeps a low profile and has had little exposure to national politics. Some analysts say those may be the best attributes he will bring to a job that falls vacant in December when the tenure of Singh, 58, ends.
Gadkari is being projected as the choice of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, (RSS), the idelogical parent of the BJP. The RSS is playing a more assertive role in trying to mend the political fortunes of the BJP, beset by internal squabbling after back-to-back general election defeats.
“He is a performer and a strict manager and RSS would naturally prefer a person like him who has maintained a low profile, but has silently performed his duties,” said Dilip Phadke, a professor of political science in Pune University.
Low profile: Nitin Gadkari, chief of the BJP’s Maharashtra unit. Amlan Dutta / Hindustan Times
“His lack of exposure in the politics of Delhi is what works in favour of him,” Phadke added. “He can work without bias.”
Talk of Gadkari heading the party at the national level gained momentum after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said in a published interview with India Today magazine that no one among the BJP leaders in Delhi would be entrusted with the task. He specifically ruled out Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar.
In Pune on 14 November, Bhagwat said three or four names were being discussed as prospective replacements for Singh, PTI reported. On whether the RSS favoured Gadkari for the post of BJP president, Bhagwat said he hadn’t ever made a statement to that effect.
“We have conveyed our expectations of the new leader and if they (BJP leaders) approach us after taking a decision, we will okay it,” Bhagwat, who has publicly stated that the BJP was a divided house and needed a young leadership, was quoted as saying.
Gadkari hails from Nagpur district of the politically important Vidharba region in Maharashtra; Nagpur is also home to the headquarters of the RSS. Gadkari rose to prominence in Maharashtra politics after taking over as public works department minister in the first BJP-Shiv Sena government in 1995. He started his career in BJP as the Nagpur district chief of the Yuva Morcha, the party’s youth wing, in 1984.
Gadkari has been a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council for several years and his work as public works department minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government had been appreciated for the number of flyovers that were built in Mumbai, the Pune-Mumbai Expressway and a drive to beautify Nagpur.
The politician belongs to the Deshasth Brahmin caste, the largest Brahmin denomination in the state. During the 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign, senior party leader L.K. Advani, whom the BJP projected as its prime ministerial candidate in the polls, called him the most important “resource mobilizer” for the party.
According to people familiar with the situation in the BJP, Singh is in favour of Gadkari as his replacement, but other leaders are apprehensive about their political careers being eclipsed in a revamp of the BJP dictated by the RSS.
“RSS is clear that the party needs committed workers and not high-flying leaders and personalities,” said a senior RSS member.
The BJP’s downturn started during its six years in power between 1998 and 2004, when personalities in the party became more important than the organization, said the member who didn’t want to be named. The RSS is trying to rectify the situation, he said.
“If not Gadkari (for the party chief’s post), it would be certainly someone like him,” the RSS member said.
Gadkari couldn’t be reached for comment.
BJP leaders maintain that any decision on the leadership would be taken by the party in adherence to its organizational “process”.
Only after organizational polls for state units are over would there be a move towards national level elections, said party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar. “Why is there so much of speculation, the name of the president is yet to be decided,” said Venkiah Naidu, a former president of the party.
However, party leaders with an RSS background are more vocal.
“The days of armchair politics are over. It is time to fight with the masses on the roads,” said Prabhat Jha, Rajya Sabha MP of the BJP and an RSS man in the party. “The aspirations of the common worker will have to be respected. It is time to build mass movements and that is the only way ahead.”
PTI contributed to this story.