New Delhi: Less endangered than Nitish Kumar, Nitin Gadkari, a stronger prime minister candidate for 2019 than the Bihar chief minister, still has his politics cut out to manoeuvre his way to the top job. If the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi is unable to form the government after the general elections on account of a sharp fall of seats, it would probably devolve on Gadkari, the relatively better performing minister of this awful showboat administration, to try to juice up a ragtag coalition. Without his class, charisma or oratorical appeal, Gadkari is yet somewhat in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s mould with strong and famous connections to non-BJP parties and even the most strident oppositionist leaders among them. The road transport, highways and shipping minister, whose claim to fame is building a record fifty-five grade separators in Bombay as PWD minister in the late 1990s, although separators arguably worsen traffic congestion, was seen chatting, for example, with the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, in the front row of this year’s Republic Day celebration. Anyone who follows the news knows Rahul and Narendra Modi are not exactly bosom pals.

So how far will Nitin Gadkari go with his ambition? For the record, Gadkari has not declared his prime minister ambition but it is equally scarcely concealed. It is a fact that a large and growing section of the Bharatiya Janata Party feels choked by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s iron grip on the party and by Modi’s imperious hold on the administration. While the party may not be obviously dynastic as the organization helmed by the Gandhis (although internal democracy is making an overdue appearance there), it is the same in one respect: it is also run by just two persons. Given a choice, the BJP would back someone who at least professes to be democratic and open-minded; and Gadkari’s doors are open to political leaders of all hues, affiliations and rank. In one public statement after another (with routine denials following), Gadkari has sought to imply a different personal faith and philosophy from Modi and Shah. He has sought accountability for BJP’s lost governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh from the standpoint of plummeting grassroots party morale. To Modi’s embarrassment, he let slip that Modi’s announcement of Rs 15 lakh for every Indian from repatriated black money was no more than a joke. He ranted against high fuel prices in September last year and embarrassed Modi once again by rhetorically asking, “Where are the jobs?” Modi promised two crore jobs a year; a leaked National Sample Survey Office report, which Modi’s government suppressed, revealed a forty-five-year record 6.1 percent unemployment after demonetization. Not satisfied with punching holes in his government’s shining self-image, Gadkari has also differed with Narendra Modi’s Congress-mukt Bharat campaign, reiterating the importance of a robust opposition in a democracy. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has also condemned the demonization of the Congress although that fits with the RSS policy of at least making a show of equidistance from all political formations.

How much does Gadkari’s power to stand at a degree of separation from Modi’s government and Modi’s BJP and how much of his prime minister ambition flow from the RSS mother organization? There is really no set way to answer this more so because the RSS follows traditions in a highly informal organizational scheme. Although Gadkari has a RSS volunteer’s background, he came to politics via the ABVP in the same manner that Arun Jaitley did. While Jaitley is persona non grata in the RSS, Gadkari has at least the accident of birth in Nagpur, RSS’s headquarter town, to count on. Gadkari has taken risks with Modi and Amit Shah that would have invited the guillotine in a lesser leader. Sanjay Joshi fell afoul of Modi and even Gadkari’s good offices couldn’t save him. Earlier, Vajpayee had Balraj Madhok and the RSS’s favourite tactician, K. N. Govindacharya, ousted. Three years ago, Subhash Velingkar was sacked from the RSS, no less, for the alleged lese-majesty of questioning Manohar Parrikar’s Hindutva credentials for keeping ties with the Goa church. And yet, Gadkari not only remains in the Modi cabinet nursing PM ambitions, he is perhaps the only minister Modi has left alone to set his own portfolio targets and meet them. If for that reason in addition to Gadkari’s own administrative skills, Gadkari’s stewardship of his largish ministerial domain has yielded results relatively superior to the rest of the Modi government. If you factor in the exaggeration and the outright lies about the predecessor UPA government’s “non-performance”, Gadkari has set a fine pace in road construction, averaging twenty-five kilometres a day last year with a spike in December, but construction quality remains dodgy. Take with an equal pinch of salt his claim of a two to three percent rise in GDP if all road construction, shipping, inland waterway and port projects are completed on schedule: It is utopian if not all of a piece with Modi-style jumla. But on specific projects, Gadkari has produced results, the Delhi-Meerut expressway, for instance, completed in eighteen months, for which Modi was compelled to share credit with him at the inauguration in May.

Nevertheless, however efficient a minister, Modi would not tolerate competition in his government, which is why Nitin Gadkari’s survival is something of a puzzle. Conceivably, it is too late to sack Gadkari with elections due in months, and worse for Narendra Modi, autonomy has definitely worked to Gadkari’s advantage. Unlike his colleagues in government, he barely defers to Modi, and refuses to accept the unquestioned authority of Amit Shah. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to nettle them. What keeps him going? Does the RSS have a brief for him? These things are impossible to tell because political leaders and ideological organizations operate at multiple levels. But it is just as certain that Nitin Gadkari is most acceptable across the political spectrum of all top flight Bharatiya Janata Party leaders as it is clear that Narendra Modi simply cannot match his popularity in the political establishment. Would Nitin Gadkari make a good prime minister? It is difficult to say. But he presents a softer, amiable and more amenable image of the BJP than Narendra Modi and Amit Shah do. If the BJP has a future, it is tied to someone liberal democratic like Atal Behari Vajpayee. Nitin Gadkari is likely the closest to Vajpayee in the present leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Overall rating: Six out of 10.

To be continued...

Please read “2019-1,” “2019-2, “ 2019-3, “ 2019-4 and “2019-5.