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Nitin Gadkari has failed his first test

March 25, 2010 14:32 IST

Nitin Gadkari had raised expectations as a no-nonsense man who meant business. Even as he has tried to synchronise the pulls and pressures within the BJP, the composition of his new team has been disappointing. What is more, he has failed to come across as his own man, writes Neerja Chowdhury.

Nitin Gadkari's new team last week was meant to show how the new Bharatiya Janata Party chief planned to translate his intentions into reality and move and shake the party. But it was a case of khoda pahar nikli chuhiya (Dug up a mountain but only found a mouse).  Four months into the party presidency, Gadkari has a revolt on his hands, and that too in Bihar, where critical state elections are due in six months.

Considering Gadkari took three months to finalise his team, after innumerable rounds of consultations with state units, the public expression of unhappiness by party leaders has not done anything to strengthen Gadkari's authority as BJP chief.

But first, let us consider the plus side of Team Gadkari. The average age of the Gadkari team has come down, and that is a step forward. The increasingly youthful face of the Congress, under Rahul Gandhi, had posed a challenge for the BJP and was a cause for worry for the Sangh Parivar.

There are 12 women office-bearers and 40 women in the BJP's national executive, and the party constitution has changed under Gandkari's stewardship, and this will exert its own pressure on other parties.

But the question being asked is: Who are the youth and women -- and indeed others -- the BJP president has chosen to bring to the fore to lead the party? And in so doing, how far has he moved in the direction of fulfilling the promises he made when he took over?

When he began his stint as the party chief, Gadkari had spoken about a performance audit. He had said that BJP leaders will be judged by their actions, and not by how many drawing rooms in Delhi they frequented. The promotion of Hema Malini as BJP's vice president -- she brings glamour to the party's campaign at election time but is hardly visible otherwise -- or the appointment of actresses Smriti Irani and Vani Tripathi has done little to boost the morale of women slogging in the party's state units for years, who had become hopeful that they will finally receive some recognition.

The parity given to Vani Tripathi and Murlidhar Rao -- both were made secretaries, when Rao had headed the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and has given years of his life towards creating a movement for swadeshi in extremely trying times -- is hardly a signal that the new leadership intends to reward performance or commitment to the basic values of the Parivar.

It can be argued, quite legitimately, that Gadkari had to work with well-known faces, and new leaders were not going to drop from the heavens. Any organisational reshuffle is after all a jiggling around of known people. But the hallmark of an effective leader is, how he utilises the existing material at hand to infuse the organisation with new energy. 

Gadkari had also set himself the goal of increasing the party's vote bank by 10 per cent. Yet, southern India is virtually unrepresented in the new team, and this 10 per cent increase cannot come only from the northern states, where the BJP already has a presence.

For the first time, no BJP general secretary hails from Uttar Pradesh, where important elections are due in 2012. The party has to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the country's largest state if it is to bid for power again. However, two out of the 10 general secretaries are from Madhya Pradesh, where elections are not due any time soon.

In Bihar, where elections are due in October, and where the established caste equations which brought the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to power last time have become skewed, the party has a problem on its hands.  Former Union minister C P Thakur has publicly expressed his unhappiness; so has Shatrughan Sinha, though he is a perennial dissenter and is batting not only for himself this time but also for senior leader Yashwant Sinha, who has been left out in the cold.

An unhappy Shahnawaz Hussain, who was made only a spokesman, chose to boycott the first meeting of party spokespersons. Purnea Member of Parliament Udai Singh has not spoken up, but is reportedly also resentful at not being given his due. 

Two leaders from Bihar have been promoted to important party posts, but both happen to be Kayasthas, and this has fuelled a revolt in the other communities. But these promotions have shown that the new party chief is either unmindful of caste as a reality of Indian politics or is deliberately not going to bother himself with it.

The exclusion of Hussain as a general secretary in the new Gadkari team has ramifications that go beyond an individual. It is an open secret that Hussain was tipped for a general secretary's post and it seems that his name was dropped at the last moment at the insistence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

It goes without saying that Hussain's credentials for the job are better than those of many others. This is not just because he is young (41), has been a member of the Lok Sabha thrice and has served as the youngest ever Cabinet minister during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's premiership. It says something for his enterprising spirit that he managed to win despite being a Muslim in a party like the BJP, which is viewed with suspicion by the Muslim community. In the last two elections, he won from Bhagalpur, which has a sizeable Muslim population.

His promotion would have given the party a talking point that it is serious about reaching out to the minority community. After all, soon after he took over as the BJP chief, Gadkari had declared that he wanted to build bridges with the Muslim community.

In some way, Hussain's exclusion comes as a real setback to the party in its journey to become a mainstream organisation. It has also underscored the party's bias against Muslims, even as other BJP leaders like Mukhtar Abbbas Naqvi and Najma Heptullah were made vice presidents. But that is not the same as being made a general secretary. Hussain's exclusion shows that Muslims in the BJP can have only a tokenistic role and rise up to a certain point, but not beyond it

It goes without saying that the RSS has had a major say in fashioning the new team. The three RSS pointspersons in the party have retained their positions -- Ram Lal as general secretary and V Satish and Saudan Singh as joint secretaries. Gadkari had reportedly elicited the views of the organisational 'mantris' in the states on which leaders to include in his new team.

However, the trio that essentially influenced Gadkari comprised Ram Lal, former BJP president Rajnath Singh, and joint general secretary of the RSS Suresh Soni, who was a powerful figure during Singh's presidency. He continues to wield considerable clout, though many felt that he might lose some of it, given Gadkari's direct access to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

The new team was reportedly finalised only at 3 am, on the day of the actual announcement, at Gadkari's new flat at Ferozeshah Road.

Gadkari had raised expectations as a no-nonsense man who meant business. Even as he has tried to synchronise the pulls and pressures that any head of a political organisation would have to, the composition of his new team, his first real test as party chief, has been disappointing. What is more, he has failed to come across as his own man.

Neerja Chowdhury