The accidental antagonist

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Photo: Shailendra Pandey

AT 54, Nitin Gadkari is the youngest ever BJP president. Since he took over the reins in December 2009, he has seen former chiefs Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh rendered completely powerless since relinquishing the top post after three-year terms. Perhaps that’s why he is humble with party seniors and lets his brashness manifest itself only when attacking the Congress.

Born in a Deshast Brahmin family in Nagpur and starting out as an ABVP activist like most of his party colleagues, Gadkari’s political innings started as the city president of the BJP in 1986. Little did he know that being in Nagpur, the HQ of the RSS and getting acquainted and working closely with senior Sangh leaders, would propel him to the topmost position in the party 25 years later. An RSS protege considered close to senior leaders like KS Sudarshan and Mohan Bhagwat, Gadkari’s only stint in government was in 1995, when he played second fiddle to Gopinath Munde as PWD minister in the BJP-Shiv Sena government. With the untimely death of Munde’s brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan, the former’s popularity and positioning in the party waned and Gadkari was shrewd enough to work his way up to heading the BJP in Maharashtra.

The man with a cavernous appetite for being in the news has tried all sorts of diets prescribed by his dietician wife, as he once told reporters over lunch. Demoralised by its defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP realised it needed someone to placate warring factions within the party, be a mediator with the Sangh, not carry any baggage and not belong to the north. LK Advani might have thought he could be easily manipulated, for he was often seen organising press and party meetings for senior leaders in Mumbai and Nagpur and would forever be at their beck and call. While his eagerness to please made him the butt of jokes in party circles, it was this lack of ego and arrogance that put Gadkari at the forefront, a decision that seemed to have taken him too by surprise.

Sushma Swaraj, though, did raise questions about his lack of experience, no doubt foreseeing that he would strike up a rapport with her bête noires Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi due to their RSS backgrounds. Gadkari’s lack of experience in national politics led to a month-long process of deliberation over his candidature as the BJP president before it was announced. But inexperience did reflect in his style of functioning when he made derogatory remarks at the beginning of his tenure, like calling Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh “dogs who licked the feet of the Congress”. Still not deft at handling political equations, Gadkari once called this reporter to say, “That statement I made in the beginning. Please don’t use it, it would be uncharitable”, regarding a senior Congress leader.

Gadkari’s lack of acumen and political finesse has often resulted in embarrassments within the party and outside

It’s this lack of acumen that has seen Gadkari aggravating political issues by snubbing leaders like Swaraj and inviting their ire. But many in the party believe that he does not suffer from the foot-in-mouth disease. “He knows that he is the BJP president and whatever he says will be taken as the final word,” says a party insider. Gadkari’s latest statement that Sonia Gandhi fighting corruption is like Pakistan fighting terror should also be read as a desperate attempt to intensify the tirade against the Congress after being accused of being a weak opposition and not being able to take the UPA head-on.

Gadkari may seem unable to lead the BJP as a strong opposition but his single-minded manoeuvering along with senior VHP and RSS leaders like Ashok Singhal helped in bringing in Uma Bharti back into the party fold. He is now working on a homecoming for two other senior party leaders. Fresh from the recent party national executive at Lucknow, Gadkari was in a defensive mode as he spoke to TEHELKA during a quick stopover in Mumbai for a medical check en route to Delhi from Nagpur.

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Q&A: ‘We have brought back Uma Bharti because she is the face of Hindutva’

Nitin Gadkari has the unenviable job of steering the BJP back to power in Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. In a freewheeling interview with Rana Ayyub, the BJP president says inner-party democracy will deliver the goods

Gadkari believes that Uma Bharti will prove to be a game-changer in next year’s Uttar Pradesh polls
Back on the agenda Gadkari believes that Uma Bharti will prove to be a game-changer in next year’s Uttar Pradesh polls
Photo: Anil Shakya

In this season of scams, don’t you think the Opposition has got issues on a platter?
Never in a democratic set-up has one witnessed so many corruption cases at the same time — and the government has the guts to lash out at the Opposition. Dayanidhi Maran and A Raja are the biggest blots on the government. P Chidambaram, who is the government’s trouble-shooter, has no moral authority to continue. As far as Maran is concerned, he started the correspondence for getting the terms of references changed and separating the spectrum pricing. He was the one who took away the power from the Group of Ministers to look into various aspects of allocation of spectrum and pricing policy and there is no reason why the prime minister was not aware of this. The prime minister cannot shirk away from the fact that he’s equally party to the scam. Aapki aankhon ke saamne Maran aur Raja ne sab kuch kar daala aur aapko pata nahi. Kalmadi ne itna bada CWG kar daala aur aapko pata nahi. Pachas hazar ka ek ek commode khareeda aur aapko pata nahi toh phir aapko kya pata hai?

Does the BJP have the moral authority to question the government on corruption when its own men are deeply entrenched? BS Yeddyurappa is still the Karnataka chief minister in spite of the corruption charges against him.
There is nothing against Yeddyurappa on paper, is there? Why should we remove him? He is one of the most efficient leaders in the party. So just because somebody casts aspersions we will not ask him to step down. He did nothing illegal. Bring proof against Yeddyurappa and we will take action against him. The only thing that goes against him is that he allotted the land. It might not have been a good thing but you can’t slap a case against him for that.

Yeddyurappa himself has conceded that he was responsible for inducting the Reddy brothers. The Lokayukta has indicted them. Why not have the same benchmark that you ask of the Congress when you asked for the resignation of Ashok Chavan?
The Reddy brothers have been our friends, so it was a collective decision. And why should we distance ourselves from the Reddy brothers? They have been with us in good times. We are not going to distance ourselves from them when they are in dire straits. They have helped us run the government in Karnataka. We are not like the Congress who use and throw people for their benefit like they did with Raja and Maran. As far as Yeddyurappa is concerned, we are not going to ask him to leave until the charges against him are proved.

Divided house? The reported rift between Sushma Swaraj and the BJP president is a media conspiracy, says Gadkari
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Do you think the government arrested Raja to prove a point?
Of course, they did this just before the Tamil Nadu election and connived to see that (DMK chief) Karunanidhi does not come back to power.

‘The Mandir is not about politics, but the faith of Hindus. It’s not that elections are here and so we need to bring in Ram Lalla’

You mean to say that the Congress had an understanding with J Jayalalithaa? 
Well, it looks like they do it every time to change their political equation in every state. Don’t they do it in Maharashtra with Sharad Pawar every time before the elections? They will come out with something on the NCP and build pressure. Look at what they are doing in Andhra Pradesh to show Jagan Reddy his place.

But the Opposition’s criticism does not have a sting because you are not united. You and your party members have divergent views on almost every issue now, be it the CVC or Yeddyurappa.
Who says that we are not a united opposition? We are a democratic party. So people in the party express divergent views. We are not a party in which Sonia Gandhi or Rahul baba say something and the others toe the line. Ye woh party nahi ki baba ko agar dysentery hui toh bhi press conference bulaayenge. In our party we have leaders who raise issues if they have any. All’s well within the party.

Mr Gadkari, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj has given an interview, not once but twice, said that she was overruled by you on the CVC issue and she was snubbed by you?
Where is the question of me snubbing Sushmaji? I just spoke the party line, what the party stand was on the CVC issue. It was the mischief of a newspaper that misrepresented it through a picture in which she was wiping a tear. It was of some other occasion, it was not because of what I said in the press conference.

Misrepresentation? Let me quote her from an interview she gave to NDTV early this year on the CVC issue — “One thing I must clarify, my relation with Nitinji or Arunji is not that of giving instructions. We can give suggestions to each other, we can talk over issues. But not that somebody will give instructions to me. So, that is not the relationship.”
(Smiles)

No, Mr Gadkari, she said this to the media, on a national channel.
That’s the beauty of our party. She had her views. But that’s what the BJP is about. We let people have different views, but that does not mean that we are fighting about it all the time as the media is making it out to be. Sushmaji is a great orator, she has done good work for the party and is doing a great job as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. But she has her personal views and opinions. I have read the Outlook interview and she hasn’t criticised anyone. She has not pointed fingers at Arun Jaitley. She has just spoken about her role in Karnataka.

She suggested that some leaders within the party could be behind linking her to the Reddy brothers. Broadly, I can’t see that, it was misread and not understood right.

What about Narendra Modi? He seems to have become a problem for the party. Uma Bharti, Sushma Swaraj and Sanjay Joshi are all unhappy with him.
That’s again a media perception. Narendrabhai has been one of the most dynamic leaders within the party and is responsible for our success in Gujarat. He has been able to sway the crowds for us. He is admired by the party rank and file.

‘Where is the question of my snubbing Sushmaji? She is a great orator, doing a good job for the party in the Lok Sabha’

What about the fact that he has been named by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) in its report on the Gujarat riots, for looking the other way when riots were taking place? 
Who has said this? The SIT selected by the Congress? We don’t believe what the sit says about Narendra Modi. Most of the people who comprise the sit change every year, so where is the question of credibility?

What about your own party members who have expressed displeasure about Modi’s autocratic behaviour?
Who are these people? I have never heard a statement made in public to that effect. And which party does not have internal differences? Why do you all want to hold on to this Modi factor? You should just give up now.

The people who have spoken openly about Modi have been shown the door. It’s a well-known fact that Sanjay Joshi is not being taken back into the party because of Modi’s opposition. Many in the Gujarat BJP have openly expressed displeasure. 
You seem to have come with an agenda.

We have no agenda, except the agenda of public interest journalism. Coming back to my question, there have been differences within the BJP and the RSS over Sanjay Joshi.
Well, you have now brought it to my notice (laughs). I am considering the matter as a party president and the decision will be taken in due time, keeping in mind the party’s interest. It’s not something that I will discuss with the media, but yes, it is indeed under consideration and we will let you know.

There’s no question of ditching Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers, says Gadkari
Political minefield There’s no question of ditching Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers, says Gadkari
Photo:S Radhakrishna

Is there pressure from the RSS? You seem to be playing the role of a mediator of late between your party colleagues and as an emissary between the RSS and the BJP. I hear that Uma Bharti’s return was a result of this.
Umaji is a fiery lady known for her oratory, personality and ability to draw crowds. She has been brought into the party after due consultation with all party members and she will breathe new life into the party with able help from Rajnathji.

So why not make her in-charge of the Madhya Pradesh BJP? She turned your fortunes in that state.
We have brought her into the party because she is an OBC face who will reach out to people from the backward classes in Uttar Pradesh and the Hindus who admire her and her guts. She is the face of Hindutva.

Is she being kept out of Madhya Pradesh because of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan factor?
See, her job at this juncture is to lead the party from Uttar Pradesh, where she is now needed. Right now Shivraj Singh is doing a good job in Madhya Pradesh. So why should we look there?

Why were senior leaders absent from her induction ceremony?
Well, if you want to read something into it, you can, but Uma Bharti was brought in after consultation with all leaders and their consent was given, including (LK) Advaniji. She has their blessings, so…

So Madanlal Khurana, Govindacharya should follow suit?
We have reinducted people into the party so that they can strengthen the party. Right now, it’s not about personal choices or personal issues. Every party leader will have to look towards strengthening the party and not personal issues.

‘We are not going to dump the Reddy brothers. We are not like the Congress that uses and discards people’

The party also seems to be in need of the Ram Mandir issue, which is why the statement about building the temple was made at the party executive in Lucknow.
It is an important issue for us. It’s not about politics, it’s about the faith of Hindus. It’s not that elections are here and so we need to bring in Ram Lalla. We are not the Congress to appease minorities just before elections. It’s what the people want — and Ram Mandir tops our agenda for the Uttar Pradesh elections and for 2014.

Irrespective of the court decision?
It’s a religious issue. We will decide on our course of action when the courts give their verdict.

Talking of religion, why does the BJP not come clean on its support for Baba Ramdev?
The BJP supports neither Ramdev nor Anna Hazare. It just supports the cause of bringing black money back to the country. None of the BJP members have come out and said anything or participated in Baba Ramdev’s agitation.

Except Sadhvi Rithambara sharing the dais and Sushma Swaraj dancing at Rajghat…
What is wrong with the dance? She was dancing to a patriotic song, not performing to a vulgar number as the Congress has made out. Also, none of us pledged our support to the movement before the midnight action at Ramlila ground. That got us agitated. We are only with Baba Ramdev on the issue of black money because we believe that the government should come clean on it. Why is it hiding the truth? Why not come clean on Hasan Ali?

Spiritual business LK Advani flanked by Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Photo: Reuters

And it’s the same stance you have on Anna Hazare?
Yes, Anna Hazare is a respected man. Why does the Congress want to silence him? He’s fighting for an issue.

Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh said it was the RSS that scripted the entire agitation. What do you have to say about that?
People like Digvijaya Singh live in a world of illusions. How could he call a seer a thug?

What about the agreement Ramdev signed with the government?
The Congress duped him into it. It wanted to get political benefits. Why then did the so-called respected leaders of the Congress like Pranab Mukherjee go to Delhi airport to bow before him? Did the leaders go on their own? Did things not go according to plan? Everything was being done on the instructions of the Congress high command and when it did not work, you put it on our shoulders. And why the reluctance to prosecute those who have stashed black money abroad? What worries the Congress so much? The respected Mr Chidambaram, who is coming out every day making statements on Anna and Baba Ramdev, why doesn’t he come and tell what the truth is? The truth about black money, the truth about the Group of Ministers?

But shouldn’t seers keep themselves away from political ambitions?
We are not supporting any seer’s political ambition nor are we supporting the agitation. We are only against the action taken by the police on Ramlila ground at 1.30 in the night. What was the need to do that? What were you so scared of?

‘The BJP supports neither Baba Ramdev nor Anna Hazare. It just supports the cause of bringing back the black money’

Let’s talk about your position as party president. It must be quite a task: dissidence, getting the RSS and the BJP on common ground. Does that leave aside the aspirations to be the PM candidate?
(Laughs) I have always done what the party asked me to do. I was asked to become the party president, I did so and I am doing it the way I want to. There are no remote controls here, I make the decisions above individual likes and dislikes. At the end of it, they are for the party. Where candidates are concerned, there are too many in the party, so it’s not about one person or the other. We are not the Gandhi family where the pm candidate is selected from the womb, and everybody listens to Babalog. Here we have a gamut of leaders like Advaniji, Modiji, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma, Jaitley. When the time comes, we shall select in a democratic way what’s best for the party. As far as my performance is concerned, whether it has been liked or not, I have been transparent. I have not played favourites. The party stands above individual interests and aspirations.

So will you be transparent when asked to comment on what prompted the revolt from your alleged arch-rival from Maharashtra, Gopinath Munde, who seems to have openly revolted against the party?
Yes, I have heard that and I have heard Vilasrao Deshmukh’s statement that he has expressed his desire to join the Congress. But this you should ask him. He hasn’t told us this. So either Vilasrao should do the talking or Mundeji.

Surely, his exit will damage the party in Maharashtra?
As I said, it’s a party that believes in democracy. He should give you the answers.

Your own partymen believe that the BJP has suffered ever since you have become the chief, not able to revive the fortunes?
Those who say this should make such statements in the open rather than speaking to the media. Where I stand today, I have the support of senior leaders within the BJP and the RSS and I shall continue to work in the party’s interests. There is a new set of voters whose interests have to be catered to. Corruption is a major issue.

Rahul Gandhi is mounting a strong opposition to Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Do you stand a chance there?
We have to work. Yes, it will be difficult, but we have an efficient team of leaders. Umaji is now in the party. She can turn things around and she has been brought in for that and we are sure to reap the results. There are issues besides what Rahul Gandhi projects and you will see our strategy soon.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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