Through the tortuous path that the Gadkari affair has traversed over the last couple of weeks, one thing stands out clearly.
Had the BJP president put in his papers after the allegations of suspicious shell companies investing in his Purti group, his stock would have gone up and his party would have been able to take the high moral ground that it is serious about combating corruption. What is more, the BJP brass would have scored a point, that in a democratic set up, Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion.
In today’s climate, where public opinion is so agitated about high-level corruption and wrong doing, and ordinary folk are making a connection between the large-scale loot and their own growing economic hardship, it would have also made for a good political strategy.
Of course, Gadkari may fear that he might become another Bangaru Laxman, who had resigned when caught receiving a bribe in a sting operation, and was forgotten by the party after that.
Some of Gadkari’s colleagues have exhorted him to follow in the footsteps of LK Advani, who had resigned his Lok Sabha seat the moment his name figured in the hawala scandal.
Despite hawala, Advani was able to bounce back with heightened stature, not only because they could find nothing to pin on him in the case, but also because he had a long track record of probity in public life. So perception was as critical to his rehabilitation as were facts.
In Gadkari’s case, the facts are yet to be established. The government is enquiring into the scam. RSS ideologue-chartered accountant S Gurumurthy has given him a “clean chit” insofar as the media allegations go, though, going by his recent tweets, he is not prepared to give him an overall “clean chit”, whatever that may mean.
The Sangh seems to be in two minds about how far to support Gadkari. It was all set to support a second term for him, and the party constitution had been suitably amended to allow for two terms for office bearers.
The Sangh leadership had propped Gadkari as the BJP chief in 2009. When the recent scam erupted, the RSS initially seemed to back him, then, after its apex meet in Chennai, it called for an “impartial enquiry”, and now, Gurumurthy’s latest tweets show that the Sangh may not be in a mood to back him for a second term. Their dilemma would be to find someone to replace him. And by supporting him for the moment, they may be buying time, not only because elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are underway but there is the more tricky question of who to put in his place.
The party is also divided on Gadkari. While a section is gunning for the party chief, and this group is seen to be close to Narendra Modi — first Ram Jethmalani called for his exit, and his son Mahesh quit the national executive in protest, then Jagdish Shettigar followed suit and now BS Yeddyurappa has threatened to leave the party unless Gadkari resigns — others such as Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley came out in his support. Advani has been more ambivalent, though he has time and again criticised Gadkari for his decisions without naming him.
Those supporting him do so because they see “NG”(Nitin Gadkari), backed by the RSS, as a buffer to contain “NM”(Narendra Modi), whose rise in national politics is a foregone conclusion if he wins Gujarat, which he is expected to do.
When veteran RSS figure MG Vaidya — RSS leaders do not go public often — said Modi was behind the attacks against Gadkari, he was giving voice to what many in the party had suspected. The initial disclosures by Arvind Kejriwal had not added up to much but they were relentlessly followed up by the media which usually gets information from willing insiders.
The Vaidya salvo was seen as a counter-attack to silence Gadkari’s opponents. Its upshot: Both sides sued for peace, and both the Sangh and the BJP spokespersons — and Gadkari himself — scotched speculation of differences within the party, till the Gujarat elections are over.
But the differences persist. They will not go away till the war of succession is over. The Gadkari story is not just about Gadkari or about Modi. Or about NG versus NM. It is about the unsettled power struggle in the BJP.
The writer is a political and social commentator