Ajay Vaishnav and Pankaj Sharma/Zee Research Group
Nitin Gadkari’s political life has come a full circle in just a month. In the first week of October at the Surajkund conclave of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Gadkari was endorsed for a rare second consecutive term as the party president. Now his political fate is hanging in the balance. But he can perhaps take solace from the fact that his predecessors too had their own share of controversies.
A day after eminent lawyer Mahesh Jethamalani quit the saffron party’s national executive as a mark of protest, Ram Jethamalani and several other senior leaders too joined the opposition to Gadkari’s continuation at the helm in light of allegations of dodgy business practices of the companies he promoted.
For a party hoping to encash the anti-corruption sentiment against the UPA government in the upcoming elections, an Ostrich-type approach towards Gadkari’s wrongdoings would be disastrous. The growing anxiety within the party is palpable. But the key question is, whether the party can walk the talk? A secondary yet significant question is, who will replace Gadkari?
A ZRG analysis of the BJP history shows that the terms of its presidents have ended prematurely and often through controversy. In the saffron party’s 32 year old history, only L K Advani has been able to serve the longest term as the president. Barring his 2005 exit over Jinnah remarks, the senior leader has held the position thrice in a party where graceful and illustrious end of the term of party chiefs gets outnumbered by hurried, fire-fighting type forced departures. Advani also scores over others in increasing the party’s tally and expanding organisation at the grassroots level.
While former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee commanded huge respect across the political spectrum as the first party president from 1980 to 1986, his charisma couldn’t help the BJP win many seats. In the 1984 General Elections, the party could manage just two seats.
Advani took over the reins of the party for the first time in 1986. Under his leadership, the party improved its tally from two Lok Sabha seats to 85 in the 1989 General Elections. The party further gained in the 1991 elections and became the principal opposition to the Congress under Dr Murli Manohar Joshi who came at the party helm in 1990. Joshi’s differences with Advani cost him dear as the Allahabad University physics professor couldn’t secure a second term in 1992 at the height of the Ayodhaya movement and paved the way for Advani’s second term from December 1996 to 1998.
The period coincided with BJP’s ascendance as the largest party in the Lok Sabha. In the two General Elections in 1996 and 1998, BJP garnered 161 and 182 seats respectively. The performance earned the party forming its government at the centre. In 1998, Kushabau Thakre took over as president for two years and quit in 2000. His term ended prematurely with the controversy surrounding the exit of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh from the party.
Thakre was succeeded by Bangaru Lakshman, the first Scheduled Caste leader to occupy the chair of the BJP, in 2000. However, his term ended in the most controversial manner when he was caught accepting bribe in footage beamed to national screens through a media sting operation.
K Jana Krishnamurthy vacated the seat on health grounds after taking over from Lakshman. M Venkaiah Naidu, the first South Indian to take the charge, resigned on moral grounds for the 2004 electoral debacle the party suffered. Under Naidu, the party slipped to 138 seats in 2004 from 182 of 1999 elections and never recovered back to its demonstrated potential since then.
Sensing the need to reinvigorate the party organisation, Advani got his third and last term as the party president. But his statement on Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah being “secular” didn’t go down well with the RSS leadership and caused his fall from grace.
BJP’s continued poor show in the 2009 poll fray brought an end to Rajnath Singh’s term as the party president in 2009. Singh had taken over from Advani in 2005. But under him, the party slipped to 116 seats in 2009 elections. The poll debacle prompted the RSS to install its functionary to strengthen the organisation. That brought little known Nitin Gadkari into the national frame from Maharashtra’s politics. After Gadkari, can the Sangh parivar evoke high moral ground now?