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Decoding Nitin Gadkari: Is He a Rebel or a Victim of Modi & Shah's 'New BJP'?

That Nitin Gadkari's remarks are seen as a rebellion says less about him and more about BJP under Modi & Shah.

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From warning against "use and throw" in relationships to saying that "politics has become about capturing power" - Union Minister Nitin Gadkari's recent remarks have sparked speculation about his political position within the BJP.

The remark "one should never indulge in use and throw" came barely a few days after Gadkari was removed from the BJP's highest body - the Parliamentary Board.

Even earlier Gadkari's remarks had created some controversy such as when he said during a Marathi interview that the NDA had made all kinds of promises as they didn't expect to come to power with such a large majority or a series of remarks he had made around December 2018-January 2019.

But what is the reason behind Gadkari's remarks? Is he indeed a rebel within the BJP as sections of the media are claiming, or are his remarks just harmless pontification of a leader who is being sidelined?

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'He Speaks From His Heart, But His Remarks Get Misrepresented'

"He speaks from his heart. People read too much into it based on their political agenda. On both sides," said a close aide of Gadkari, associated with him since several years.

On being asked what was implied by "both sides", the aide said, "Opposition, media and his critics within the party all want to present what he says as a rebellion against the party leadership even though he hasn't mentioned anyone".

There may be some truth to the allegation that Gadkari's remarks are being presented out of context. Recently, a part of a speech by Gadkari recounting a 1995 incident was wrongly presented with the claim that he's about to quit the BJP.

However, though a rebellion or exit from the BJP may not be on the cards at all, there may be some truth to the claim that Gadkari's remarks reflect a certain sense of disaffection with the party.

Also, often his remarks do add to a certain narrative at critical points of time. For instance, around December 2018-January 2019, BJP was at a comparatively weaker position, having lost Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to the Congress.

At that time, Gadkari saying things like "leaders shouldn't just take credit for victories but also bear responsibility for losses" and that "one should only show dreams that one can fulfill" seemed directed at PM Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah.

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Gadkari Didn't Change His Style, Even as BJP's Political Culture Changed

Gadkari seems better suited for an era in which the BJP had a much more collective leadership, and not the centralised, personality-centered organisation it has become under Modi.

It was also an era when BJP's approach towards allies and political rivals was much more amicable.

In some ways, Gadkari may be paying the price for not changing his behaviour in a rapidly changing political culture in the BJP.

Those who have observed Gadkari say that his behaviour towards people has remained unchanged over the years - be it his present stint as minister, as BJP president from 2009 to 2013 or even earlier as the in-charge for rural roads at the Centre or a minister in the Maharashtra government.

That Nitin Gadkari's remarks are seen as a rebellion says less about him and more about BJP under Modi & Shah.
Gadkari & Shivraj dropped from reconstituted BJP Parliamentary Board

(Photo: IANS)

His associates say that Gadkari never quite adjusted to the ways of Delhi's power circles. Even as BJP president he would speak directly and not sugarcoat his words. As a result, a few of his rivals within the party who were more entrenched in Delhi's ways, would plant stories against him in the media about his alleged gaffes.

What seems to be getting Gadkari into trouble is that he hasn't adapted to BJP's changed political culture in the Modi-Shah era.

Under PM Modi and Amit Shah, elaborate displays of allegience, public professing of loyalty to the two leaders have become a norm. In contrast, Gadkari continued to speak his mind and avoid such public displays of fealty.

Cabinet reshuffles have further strengthened this culture. In the last reshuffle for instance, senior leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar were axed while political lightweights like Ashwini Vaishnaw were promoted to prominent ministries.

The message was that PM Modi's power is supreme. No leader, however senior, is indispensable. On the other hand, anyone can be brought and given a high position if the PM so wills. It showed that PM Modi and Amit Shah want to promote leaders who owe their success entirely to them.

In such a political culture, Gadkari is a bit of a misfit as he owes his rise to the RSS, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Bal Thackeray.

In fact even the RSS has been recalibrating its approach due to the unprecedented power wielded by PM Modi and Amit Shah.

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The fact that his off-the-cuff remarks, are seen as an acts of rebellion says less about Gadkari and more about the BJP's changing political culture.

However, Gadkari is still not a dissenting voice in the line of Shanta Kumar, Varun Gandhi, Satyapal Malik or Subramanian Swamy.

There is a clear pattern to their dissent. Shanta Kumar has been critical when it comes to the 2002 Gujarat riots, including the recent remission given to the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case.

Varun Gandhi has been critical on issues concerning the unemployed youth. Also, both he and Satyapal Malik voiced support for the farmers' protest.

Subramanian Swamy has been attacking the Modi government on the economy and foreign policy, especially China.

Gadkari's remarks on the other hand, are devoid of specifics. At most they reflect his own personal state of mind, but are not a direct critique of the government or party leadership.

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Why Rajnath Singh Was Retained But Not Nitin Gadkari

To understand what is happening in the party regarding Gadkari, a useful comparison would be Rajnath Singh, though the latter is senior to Gadkari both in terms of age as well as in the organisation.

Both Rajnath Singh and Gadkari are former BJP presidents, both are among the few surviving ministers from the first Modi Cabinet of 2014. Both are perhaps the only senior leaders from the pre-Modi period to still be accommodated in the Cabinet, except Arjun Munda to some extent.

So was Gadkari been dropped from the party's Parliamentary Board while Rajnath Singh wasn't?

Rajnath Singh's survival is interesting because during his tenue as BJP president from 2005-2009, he had actually removed Narendra Modi from the party's Parliamentary Board. Modi was brought back by Rajnath in 2013 along with the inclusion of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Chouhan has now been removed along with Gadkari.

That Nitin Gadkari's remarks are seen as a rebellion says less about him and more about BJP under Modi & Shah.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah and Union Ministers Niti Gadkari and Rajnath Singh at BJPs national executive meeting at Talkatora stadium, in New Delhi on Monday.
(Photo: PTI)

Gadkari, on the other hand, has no such history of acting against Modi. In fact as party president and after that when Modi was the BJP's face for the 2014 elections, Gadkari has only been helpful to Modi.

However, one major issue of conflict between the two was Gadkari's attempt to rehabilitate Modi's rival in Gujarat - Sanjay Joshi - in the party.

Gadkari's occasional controversial remarks as opposed to Rajnath Singh's steadfast defence of the government - may only be part of the reason for their contrasting fortunes.

An important reason of difference seems to be the political equations in their respective states.

Both Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari happen to be from the same state and caste background as two leaders who are gaining national prominence within the BJP - Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and former Mahatashtra CM (currently deputy CM) Devendra Fadnavis respectively.

While Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath both represent the UP Thakur lobby within the BJP, Gadkari and Fadnavis are Deshastha Brahmins from Nagpur.

Fadnavis is known to be very hardworking and ambitious. Despite being unhappy at being made deputy CM after already being CM of Maharashtra, Fadnavis is said to be trying to make most of his job. It was important to accommodate him in the central election committee, given how Maharashtra is emerging as a challenging state for BJP in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

That Nitin Gadkari's remarks are seen as a rebellion says less about him and more about BJP under Modi & Shah.

Devendra Fadnavis took oath as the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra on Thursday, 30 June.

(Photo: PTI)

Gadkari and Fadnavis also represent slightly contrasting approaches in Maharashtra politics. Gadkari is said to have an excellent equation with the Thackeray family - Balasaheb Thackeray is known to have said that he isn't opposed to having Gadkari as Maharashtra CM even over someone from the Shiv Sena.

Fadnavis, on the other hand, was instrumental in splitting the Shiv Sena and displacing the Thackerays.

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In that sense, Fadnavis's aggressive approach suits PM Modi and Amit Shah, compared to Gadkari who is still an old style Maharashtra politician who maintains friendships across parties.

Rajnath Singh has been retained for the same reason Gadkari was sidelined. Rajnath Singh's presence as a UP Thakur in the Parliamentary Board - is being seen as a subtle way of blocking Yogi Adityanath's entry.

It remains to be seen if the sidelining of Gadkari is restricted to the Parliamentary Board or if it gets extended to the government as well.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  PM Narendra Modi   BJP   Rajnath Singh 

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