There was the talk of a “160 club” before the 2014 general elections. The idea was that if the BJP won around 160 seats, Narendra Modi’s enemies within the party could deny him the prime ministership.
As Narendra Modi’s chances of winning 272+ seats in 2019 wane in popular perception, the 160 club is back. This time, it has its own prime ministerial candidate: Nitin Jairam Gadkari.
Gadkari’s ambitions have been known for a while. Now, several things are coming together in his favour. Who knows, he could well be India’s next prime minister.
1. Regional parties for Gadkari
Should the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerge as the single largest party significantly short of a majority, the party’s NDA allies will call the shots. None of these allies has any reason to insist on making Narendra Modi the Prime Minister again. Marginalised by the Modi-Shah duo since May 2014, at least some of them may insist on someone else as the PM, especially when the RSS nudges them to. And that choice is being made publicly clear in advance: Nitin Jairam Gadkari.
It is also clear who will be the first NDA ally to make this move: the Shiv Sena. Its vocal MP Sanjay Raut has already more than hinted at this in an article in party mouthpiece Saamana.
Gadkari’s appeal among regional parties is not limited to NDA allies. He has arguably been the most popular minister with the opposition as he maintains good relations with all of them. He has refused to follow the Modi-Shah kind of untouchability and hostility towards political opponents. He has modelled himself around Sharad Pawar, the other PM aspirant from Maharashtra, in developing acceptability across party lines.
As minister for road transport and highways, he has been generous towards the non-BJP, the non-NDA states as well, or so his image goes. “The CM of every state thinks I favour his or her state the most and I’m happy about it,” he said at his 60th birthday function in Nagpur in 2017. No wonder opposition MPs have openly praised Gadkari in the Lok Sabha.
2. BJP for Gadkari?
Unhappy with the top-down undemocratic approach of Modi and Shah, many in the BJP would be relieved to have another option.
Project Gadkari is silently giving wings to the disgruntlement among those within the BJP who have found themselves irrelevant in the Modi-Shah era. Former union minister Sangh Priya Gautam may not be a powerful voice, but the marginalised party veteran in Uttar Pradesh has demanded that Gadkari be made deputy PM right away.
A prominent farmers’ leader in Maharashtra, who heads a government body, has also openly demanded that Gadkari be made PM – in writing to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, no less.
3. RSS for Gadkari
Given Narendra Modi’s rising popularity in 2013 among the RSS and BJP rank and file, the RSS top had no option but to support Modi for PM. But if Modi’s public popularity goes down – and his leadership brings significantly fewer seats than the majority mark – the RSS has no compulsion to back Modi.
For the RSS, Nitin Gadkari is their own son who grew up literally next to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. The proximity is also about caste – Gadkari is a Maharashtrian Brahmin just like the top RSS leadership. Despite not exactly being a charismatic mass leader, and one who has very little electoral victories in his CV, Gadkari became a minister in Maharashtra in 1995 and the BJP national president in 2010.
The RSS even got the BJP to amend its party constitution to allow Gadkari a second term as the BJP president, but the effort was sabotaged through corruption allegations against him. At the time, Gadkari was engaged in well-known political battles with an assertive Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. Veteran RSS ideologue M.G. Vaidya had openly blamed Modi.
4. Maharashtrians for Gadkari
No Maharashtrian has ever been a prime minister (Morarji Desai was a Gujarati). The sub-national sentiment that a Maharashtrian should become a PM is so strong that you can hear it from taxi drivers in Mumbai.
This sentiment is also coming together for Nitin Gadkari. India will get a Marathi PM one day, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray said recently. When asked if he meant Sharad Pawar of rival NCP or Nitin Gadkari of ally BJP, he skirted the question.
The sentiment is so strong that Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis has had to say that India will get more than one Maharashtrian PM by 2050 – perhaps he’s including himself!
5. Big business for Gadkari
They can’t do it openly, but the Gadkari-for-PM buzz is being amplified by business fraternity and industry since Gadkari is being seen as more business-friendly than either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. You can tell how much big businesses must like him when he has the guts to openly suggest that Vijay Mallya is no criminal.
The charges against Gadkari are in the realm of all-pervasive political corruption: conflict of interest, shell companies and so on. At least for now, he’s managed to overcome the corrupt image, not least because of the current environment of an economic slowdown where people are more worried about jobs than corruption.
Add to that Gadkari’s reputation as having been among the best performingministers of the Modi government.
An industrialist himself, Gadkari’s business interests have invited corruption charges, some of which led to his resignation as the BJP chief in 2013. The immediate provocation was corruption allegations by Arvind Kejriwal during the Lokpal movement in 2012. You know how much times have changed when even Kejriwal is praising Gadkari!
6. Gadkari for Gadkari
He’s already campaigning. Here are some points he has made in just the last few weeks: intolerance is bad, he likes Nehru’s speeches, the party leadership should accept responsibility for electoral defeats, we must accept there is a farm crisis, while unemployment is the biggest issue facing the country.
“I believe that with appropriate policies we can convert India into a strong economic power. This is the time for appropriate policies and do away with bad governance (sic). I am not talking politically, and in the interest of the democracy and in the interest of the country, we need good leadership,” he said in Mumbai last week.