Gadkari issue continues to roil RSS

The BJP's core committee may have handed Nitin Gadkari a generous clean chit on both 'legal' and 'moral' counts after its meeting on Tuesday, but he remains at the centre of visible unease in the party. More than the BJP, however, the Gadkari question continues to roil the RSS, the organisation that appointed him as BJP president three years ago, and to which he is informally accountable.

According to sources, while Nagpur may have virtually scripted the party's show of support to Gadkari on Tuesday, it has not been quite as successful in stanching the discomfort within the Sangh over the controversial entrepreneur from Nagpur. The RSS despatched Gadkari to Delhi in December 2009 to monitor and subdue the squalling in the party's central leadership, well before the Anna mobilisation catapulted the corruption issue to centrestage in 2011. But that is small comfort for an organisation that assiduously courts and advertises an image of above-the-political-fray incorruptibility.

The latest controversy over Gadkari's businesses, involving serious allegations of ghost investors and shell companies, comes at the top of other episodes in which the RSS machine has tried to project distance from its favourite swayamsevak: the decision to take back tainted BSP leader Babu Singh Kushwaha ahead of the Uttar Pradesh polls, for one, or the party support, later withdrawn, to the Rajya Sabha candidature of controversial NRI businessman Anshuman Mishra in Jharkhand.

But the larger context of the current restiveness in the RSS that has gathered around the figure of Gadkari may lie in the progressive tightening of Nagpur's control over the BJP in his tenure. While the RSS has always been the shadow behind the party, it has never been this controlling. This has cramped and constricted the BJP, a fate the unresisting party would appear to have invited upon itself. But a section of the RSS also sees it to be extracting a toll on an organisation that strenuously maintains a facade of being apolitical. It may keep denying it, but the RSS has never been as involved in the rough and tumble of party politics as it is now, or as politicised.

For the secretive organisation, its increasing power over the BJP and micro-management of its affairs comes with a downside: it is being forced to face up to the responsibility—and the brickbats—for the party's decisions and predicaments. At the RSS's just-concluded annual Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarini Mandal Baithak in Chennai, the ferment in the cadres was apparent. According to sources in Chennai, what was also obvious was that top echelons of the RSS, especially the influential group of seniors hailing from Nagpur headed by Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, are still resisting the spreading sullenness on the question of Gadkari. It is being seen as significant that on the final day of the meet, Bhagwat chose to hold a parallel meeting on Gadkari, instead of participating in the formal office-bearers' conclave held to discuss the same matter.

The Sarsanghchalak would appear to subscribe to the view of a section of Sangh seniors that removing Gadkari at this stage would be seen as a loss of face and an admission of guilt by the RSS leadership. And isn't Gadkari a victim of the machinations by wily colleagues in the BJP and/or the Congress, they counter. The conspiracy theory, these seniors know, is bound to strike a chord in an organisation that revels in them. Even those who feel that Gadkari must step down as party president, however, may be inclined to give the Sangh loyalist an "honourable" exit. For the RSS, it is always a slow burn to the decisive moment. Its ethos rules out a quick decision taken in the heat of the controversy, whose fallout may be unpredictable or difficult to manage. Unfortunately for the RSS, this time, it may not have the luxury to set its own pace. Some dates are pressing: November 22, when the winter session of Parliament begins, when the BJP will want to put the Congress on the mat again on corruption; and December 20, when the Gujarat election results will be out, which will also be a pointer to the force of Narendra Modi's much talked-about bid to take over the party ahead of 2014.

Three time-frames are presently in circulation in the parivar for a decision on Gadkari: in December, when Gadkari's term ends, in January when he actually took charge or in February when the party's national council put its stamp of approval on his appointment three years ago.

The names of several leaders are being floated as Gadkari's replacement, including senior leader Shanta Kumar. The party vice-president and former chief minister of Himachal is seen to be "clean", though at 78, he may not make the perfect fit for a party desperately seeking to project dynamism as it goes into general elections in a little over a year.

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