There’s trouble in the ranks for India’s PM

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For a moment, Gadkari’s recent utterances made me wonder if he has switched sides.

It’s a given that change is the only constant in Indian politics. In the world’s largest democracy, to change ideology, presuming every party has one, is an acceptable norm. There’s nothing cheeky about it. With every jump, politicians get richer and thicker-skinned, and parties multiply like moths.

“What’s the big deal?” one might ask. Donald Trump, the present occupant of the White House, is no stranger to the switching game. He registered as a Republican in 1987 and has since changed his party affiliation five times. In 1999, he switched to the Independence Party of New York. In 2001, Trump became a Democrat, jumping back to the Republican Party in 2009. In 2011, he became an independent, before returning to the Republicans in 2012. But then in American politics, Trump is a one-off phenomenon, which even fellow Republicans pray won’t be contagious.

What sparked these thoughts were the pictures from the much-hyped opposition rally that took place in Kolkata on Saturday. There was a sea of crowd indeed, but not the four million that the chief organiser, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, had forecast. It’s not the 500,00-strong public that perplexed me, but the sheer number of leaders – 23 of them – jostling to join hands and their credentials. They were bound together on a single platform by one agenda:

Remove Narendra Modi as prime minister. The leaders who cobbled together the historical show of force fancy the 2019 general election would be a story of one Goliath versus 23 Davids.

And look at the leaders on the dais. It’s a stage of contradictions as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has rightly pointed out. Rubbing shoulders with a galaxy of national and regional leaders were former BJP ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, and BJP rebel Shatrughan Sinha. The trio is no more than political ‘transgenders’ who would do anything for power. They went astray and dumped their Hindutva jacket when the BJP denied them ministerial posts in the Modi government. How many of the other leaders are still rooted in their original political family? Certainly not Mamata, who was a poster girl of the Congress in West Bengal until 1998. How many of these political turncoats aren’t hiding a dagger to backstab their new comrades-in-arms in the post-election horse-trading?

While political leaders from 14 states shared the stage, Congress leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi were conspicuous by their absence. Mamata’s orchestrated position against declaring Rahul Gandhi 2.0 as a consensus prime ministerial candidate has not gone down well with the Congress leadership. The party is also apparently sceptical of the West Bengal chief minister’s hunger for power. The adulation most speakers heaped on Mamata at the rally, like Shourie’s statement that ‘We need one leader, and Mamata is the sherni (lioness) of Bengal’, would further alienate the Congress, the only party in the crowd that can call itself national.

While such self-serving agendas existing within the opposition grand alliance would be a shot in the arm for the BJP, Modi cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the rumbling of discontent within. Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s recent statements which were critical of the Modi government brings two theories to my mind. One, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation is refusing to hide his ambition to replace the embattled Modi. Second, he may just be a party ploy to appease disillusioned voters by presenting a soft choice like former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had friends across the political spectrum. In that case, even the disgruntled BJP trio who attended Mamata’s rally would make a ghar wapsi, or homecoming.

Gadkari’s first salvo against Modi came in 2016, when he said the BJP’s 2014 slogan, achche din (good days), had become a gale mein haddi (bone stuck in neck). Last October, he said that in the 2014 elections, the BJP made “promises that came to mind” as it never thought it would come to power and will have to be accountable for it. In the midst of acrimonious chest-beating by hardcore Hindu leaders, he asked his party men to have humility as no government can rule forever.

Shortly after the BJP’s recent defeat in assembly elections in the Hindi heartland, Gadkari said the party leadership should have the courage to own up to the debacle. He also reminded the party of its commitment to the young generation that voted Modi to power, saying that unemployment remains one of the biggest problems facing the country.

Unconfirmed reports said the party dispatched an emissary to restrain him. But despite the counselling, Gadkari hit the nail in the forehead last Friday when he said India does not belong to any particular religion, caste, or language. He said India is of every person who loves it, be it a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Christians or others. It’s a direct attack on Modi’s choice of Yogi Adityanath, an eccentric Hindu monk, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The north Indian state was Modi’s waterloo. Adityanath’s religious adventure to wipe out the footprints of Islam and the Mughal empire has sent shivers down the Indian populace at large. The damage that the nationalist leader has done to the BJP and the secular fabric of the nation is irreparable. Adityanath may have earned a few more upper caste votes in the state, but the BJP has lost its credibility in other parts of India.

According to a Huffpost report, an influential faction within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, including Mohan Bhagwat, is prepared to support Gadkari for the post of prime minister, should the BJP fall short of a majority after the 2019 general elections.

For a moment, Gadkari’s recent utterances made me wonder if he has switched sides. I am still puzzled if the minister’s change of heart is genuinely humane after watching five years of lawlessness in the name of God, cow, and beef – not necessarily in that order. Or is it Sangh Parivar’s ultimate weapon on the hustings?

But then Gadkari himself might have to break a sweat to sail though the crucial polls.

suresh@khaleejtimes.com

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