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Nitin Gadkari: The BJP top brass cannot ignore this voice from Nagpur

Tuesday, January 08, 2019
By Jagdish Rattanani

Nitin Gadkari is in the news. The former BJP president and the minister (Road Transport & Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation) in the Narendra Modi government has used his hometown and the headquarters city of the RSS to make the point that the entire nation has been talking about – where are the jobs for our youth? Speaking in Nagpur over the weekend, he said unemployment is one of the biggest problems facing the country today. This, of course, is the plain fact that surely even the prime minister has come to realise, though a little too late in the term and a little too close to the elections. The speech has been followed by a demand (unconnected to the speech, it seems) that Gadkari be made the deputy prime minister, with some other suggested changes that, in effect, tell us that the party is waking up to the mood of a nation not so enamoured with the Modi style of working anymore.

The flavour of the season
This is not the first time Gadkari has come to attention for remarks that give us the flavour of the season. Around Christmas, Gadkari was quoted as saying India’s greatest strength is its “unity in diversity” and made the all-important point, according to PTI, that “at many places, the death of a cow is being given more importance than the killing of a policeman”. In his words, as reported by PTI, “Unity in diversity is India's greatest strength. Justice for all and appeasement of none... It's a fact that an individual is not considered great because of his or her religion, caste, language but by his quality and productivity” and this: “People must have collective spirit. It is important to take people together. You can be very good and very impressive but if you do not have people to support you, what is the use?” At IIT Bombay, he was quoted as saying, “I believe that with appropriate policies we can convert India into a strong economic power. This is the time for appropriate policies and doing away with bad governance. I am not talking politically, but in the interest of democracy and in the interest of the country, we need good leadership.”

However much the minister may want this stressed, he knows that his remarks cannot but be read politically and that they in fact carry significant political import given the current conditions like BJP’s losses in the Assembly elections and the reported disenchantment and recent noise in the party that all is not well. So even if Gadkari genuinely means that his words are not to be read as a political statement against the leadership, this is very much in the mould of Gadkari versus Modi and Amit Shah, and it is indicative of the first clear signs of an internal challenge to a concentrated and over-centralised power structure that has taken hold of the BJP. Those who work in the BJP and have grown with the party will tell you that the grain of the BJP is against a Congress-style central command. It is another matter they have tolerated this, given the spectacular mandate that Modi got the party, but that tolerance has now been stretched. The party is said to be disciplined but not sycophantic in the way the Congress handles the Gandhi family. And with a 2019 mandate no more a given, it is not surprising that there are voices emerging to ask some questions.

Gadkari’s significance
There are many things going for Gadkari. He is a former president of the party. He is known to be close to the RSS. He is considered an “achiever” in the sense that he can truly be credited with the policies that have allowed Indian roads and surface transport to take off, with models that have worked. In that sense, he is a doer of the things that need to get done under our current model of development, not the glamour publicity seeker who might speak of a Japanese bullet train that admittedly (in Modi’s words) will have no commuters but will still be bought only to make a point to the world. Gadkari likes talking about how he brought down costs, called out bidders seeking to overcharge for roads and how penalty and bonus clauses have helped build a new system of speedy delivery – all from experience that he has gained from the time he was a minister in Maharashtra. Without reading too much into his strengths (he sought to defend Vijay Mallya by saying he had paid taxes for many years), it is also to be pointed that Gadkari projects a leadership style very different from the arrogance that has come to be associated with the current leadership. He can talk across the aisle. He is unlikely to pontificate about the end of the Congress and other wild fantasies of the Modi-Shah duo.

A complex challenge
That brings in his point about offering “jobs” as distinct from creating employment opportunities, and the important question that while the fight for reservations can go on, where are the jobs that the government can provide? This is a big debate and one on which the government is particularly vulnerable. The government has had little time for this work in its five years full of misdirected efforts at mega “solutions”, loud publicity and raising of the political and communal temperature. Providing jobs for our youth is only one part of the challenge. India also needs to look at the type of jobs it’s opening up, the problem of increasing casualisation of the labour force that has taken away the bargaining rights of workers and exposed them to the harsh realities of the market, without adequate social protections. The growth of regular formal jobs has not been substantial in the post-reform period. Nevertheless, the organised sector has been able to absorb more jobs but in the form of casual or contractual work. It remains a fact that despite the many acts and laws that are meant to protect workers, minimum wage requirements are violated, benefits are often non-existent and workers in many areas can be denied their due rights and benefits.

Consider the following two data points as an example: At the all-India level, about 65 per cent of the regular wage/salaried workers, 68 per cent of the contract workers and 95 per cent of the casual workers do not have a written job contract. Just about 27 per cent of the regular wage/salaried workers and under 12 per cent of the contract workers had written job contract of more than three years, according to the fifth annual employment survey of the union ministry of labour. Also, across India, under 21 per cent of workers (except the self-employed) received paid leave and 22 per cent availed social security benefits.  As many as 71.2 per cent of workers were not eligible for social security benefits. We cannot keep up growth with such numbers. One does not know where Gadkari might stand on this. But this is just one aspect of the complex challenge of providing jobs. It tells us why jobs for the youth will be a burning issue with important implications for our politics.

The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal
Syndicate: The Billion Press

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