In the months preceding December 2009, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat pressured the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to accept a surprise gift to the party: the election of Nitin Gadkari as party president for the next three years.
The Gadkari-RSS link has been so strong, that the party even amended its constitution recently to give him a second term. But a week is a long time in politics. What seemed like a settled issue has come alive in the minds of some BJP leaders in the wake of allegations about his Purti Group.
Thus far, the RSS chief’s preference for Gadkari has ensured that no party leader, senior or junior, could question his “re-election” as party president. But murmurs have started about his Purti group, its sources of funding, the people running it, and the existence of shell companies, and this comes at the wrong time.
If the murmurs turn into voices of dissent, can what has been settled be unsettled?
That is a question for the future, but there’s little doubt that Gadkari’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Over the last three years, despite his relative inexperience, he managed to turn disadvantages into advantages.
Since he was younger than all other the “national” contenders for the post in 2009, his elevation was hyped as a generational shift. The fact that he was an unknown commodity meant he did not carry baggage from the past. As a lightweight politician, he was seen as unaligned to any of the party’s factions or senior leaders. Since he had never held any post in the party’s central command structure, he could begin with a clean slate.
Since he was new to Delhi, a whole set of supposedly dispossessed leaders made a beeline for him. Since he woke up late and worked late, he was seen as someone who could burn the midnight oil to settle contentious issues. As he wore short-sleeved shirts and trousers, he did not fit the conventional mould of the khadi-kurta-pyjama clad neta, bringing in a breath of fresh air to politics. Since he spoke of NGOs and a corporate style of functioning, it was believed that his image would be seen as friendly to the middle class.
Unlike the past, he did not get into ideological issues to justify his position. One reason was that he did not need to impress his mentors in Nagpur on this score, as he was already their favourite.
In his first conclave as party president in February 2009 in Indore, Gadkari sold the story of his rise to the mass of party leaders. The thrust of the two speeches he made, one at the national executive and another at the national council, was that if he, an ordinary party worker, could move from a bicycle boy pasting posters in Mumbai to the presidency of the party, the sky was the limit for others, too.
Gadkari showcased himself as a social entrepreneur whose success in politics was intertwined with success in business with his Purti Group. A huge Purti pandal was set up in specially erected ethnic settings on the outskirts of Indore. It had been a must-visit site for a lot of young leaders in the party.
Three years down the line, Gadkari is facing the needle of suspicion for the same entrepreneurial skills that he had boasted of at that time. The same Purti group that was showcased as a shining example of social entrepreneurship which improved the fortunes of hundreds of people in backward Vidarbha, is now under fire for questionable funding.
The unfolding revelations on the Purti Group have forced party leaders to look the other way. Even though he landed up in a TV studio to counter the charges against him and his group (one allegation is that his funds came from contractors who benefited from deals given by him during Sena-BJP rule), the cloud of suspicion refuses to lift. His answers have been less than convincing.
BJP insiders are asking if his hyped-up entrepreneurial ability is turning into a potential liability. The concern is that apart from damaging his own standing, it could affect the party’s image too.
If Gadkari’s nod for the entry of tainted BSP leader Babu Singh Kushwaha ahead of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections caused some outrage in the party as it undermined its fight against corruption, his personal affiliation to Rajya Sabha aspirant Anshuman Mishra and MP Ajay Sancheti have deepened the embarrassment.
Last week, the party fully backed him when Arvind Kejriwal made his allegations. The expose itself turned out to be a dud, as the land allotment made to Purti did not seem too wayward. But subsequent media investigations by NDTV and The Times of India have managed to raise questions about his source of funding.
Both Gadkari and his Nagpur mentors have something to think about.