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The RSS has a contingency plan for 2019 and his name is Nitin Gadkari

In the rapidly changing political race for 2019, indications are that the forces of Hindutva may have begun to shuffle leadership cards. Gordhan Zadaphia has been appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as poll in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and Nitin Gadkari is being packaged as the ‘liberal’ face of Hindutva. 

Zadaphia, was Minister of State for Home in Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. A right-hand man of Pravin Togadia, the then chief of the Vishwa Hiindu Parishad (VHP), his appointment was to acknowledge VHP support for Modi as chief minister. 

There were widespread allegations that Zadaphia was involved in the riots. Togadia is alleged to have influenced the posting of sympathetic police officers in key locations who then played a supporting role in the post-Godhra riots of February-March 2002 when VHP and Bajrang Dal activists unleashed a wave of terror in the state. Zadaphia was also named by Babu Bajrangi and MLA Harish Bhatt in connection with the 2002 communal riots in the Tehelka-Aaj Tak sting. 

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Supreme Court had pointed to Zadaphia’s complicity and possible culpability in the Ahmedabad massacres. The SIT report had noted the interaction of an upright Indian Police Service Officer of 1992 batch, Rahul Sharma, with Zadaphia. Sharma had been commended for controlling the rioting in Bhavnagar district. Yet according to the report, Zadaphia told Sharma that the ratio of Hindus and Muslims killed in police firing was not “proper” – i.e. more Hindus had died than Muslims. Sharma was thereafter transferred. However, Zadaphia was never charged in any Gujarat riots case although he was questioned thrice by the SIT. 

Modi dropped him from his Cabinet after winning the 2002 Gujarat assembly election in the wake of the riots, signalling a distancing from Togadia. Zadaphia went into political wilderness. He re-joined the BJP in February 2014, apparently at the prodding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). However, Amit Shah did not select him as a candidate in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections.

For Shah to appoint Modi’s bete noir as poll in-charge of UP defies logic. BJP sympathisers explain it as an attempt to get the non-Yadav OBCs and the Jats behind the party. Coming from the Patidar community, Zadaphia apparently has developed links with Kurmis and Jats in UP under the Akhil Bharatiya Sardar Patel Mahasabha. He was even asked to mobilise the Kurmi vote in Varanasi for Modi in the 2014 polls. 

There is speculation that his appointment is at the behest of the RSS. It is likely that the RSS wants to control candidate selection in UP for Lok Sabha with his help. It may want to replace a number of BJP MLAs who had migrated to the BJP in 2014 and did not share the RSS’s core beliefs.

It may also be that the failure of PM Modi’s development narrative is drawing the party towards the real “Gujarat Model” of 2002 – communal polarisation on election eve. Zadaphia has seen communal riots at close quarters as MoS Home in Gujarat and is well aware of their fallout. 

One can only hope that expectations of communal violence in UP in the run up to the polls are wrong. There has, however, been a recent attempt to create communal tension in the state by linking cow slaughter to a Muslim religious congregation in Bulandshahar. Narratives about the Ram Temple, the Triple Talaq Bill and even Islamic State modules are also emerging in UP. The upcoming Kumbh Mela may provide an opportunity to expand these narratives. 

However, should such communal polarisation not succeed and the prospects of forming a Narendra Modi-led government appear bleak, the RSS could be betting on yet another horse – Nitin Gadkari.

Gadkari is being positioned as the acceptable face of the BJP. He grew up in the Mohitewade Mahal area of East Nagpur where the RSS headquarter is situated. He went to the same school in Mahal as the current head of RSS, Mohan Bhagwat. If others in the BJP are close to the RSS because of their activism, Gadkari is virtually a ‘child’ of the RSS, seeped in its values since his childhood.

For him to criticise the present leadership of the party and government, however covertly, is not without significance. Gadkari backtracked from his first double-edged quip after the BJP state polls debacle that ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”. However, he has since made several other statements which can only be seen as positioning himself against the current leadership. 

These statements eulogised Nehruvian tolerance; criticised party leaders who “speak too much and too provocatively”; who think that elections can be won through “sheer oratory, tall on promise but short on delivery” and who depend on “artificial marketing”. They were made in a public lecture organised by the Intelligence Bureau. 

Politically, it is significant that Gadkari’s criticism comes in the wake of the BJP’s defeat in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh when there is a growing perception of the erosion of the Modi-Shah leadership. There can be little doubt about who Gadkari was upbraiding when he suggested that the party leadership must take responsibility for electoral defeats. Already, an admirer of Gadkari, Maharashtra farmer leader Kishore Tiwari, has proposed to the RSS that Gadkari should replace Modi as prime minister. 

Modi and Shah have not been unaware of a potential challenge from Gadkari. His second term as party president was scuttled from within by planting damaging reports in the media about his Purti Group of companies and there were attempts to bug his office. While these moves suggest a growing distance between Gadkari and the current leadership in the government and party, his acceptance to the RSS remained unchanged.

Gadkari could easily step into the shoes of either Shah or Modi at an appropriate time. Should a contingency arise Gadkari could be the man of the moment that the RSS is keeping in reserve.

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