New Delhi: It was huge surprise for journalists waiting at Vigyan Bhawan on 1 December, ahead of the third round of talks between the Modi government and the farmers protesting against the farm laws, when Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar turned up as the government representative alongside Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and his deputy Som Parkash.
There were expectations that the talks would be led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who has played the role of firefighter during the ongoing protests, and speculation was soon afoot that his absence suggested the government wasn’t taking the negotiation process seriously.
However, sources in the BJP said sending Tomar for the dialogue was a strategic decision masterminded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah with several factors in mind.
The primary factor, they added, was that it was felt senior leaders of the government should not be involved in the talks at this stage. The idea is to involve them if the current talks fail and the farmers seek to escalate the matter to a higher level in the government. Another factor, it is learnt, is that Modi and Shah wanted the talks to be led by the agriculture minister.
Then there is the fact, sources said, that having Tomar, a low-profile leader, in the driver’s seat would mean the credit for any breakthrough is attributed to Modi and Shah.
“He (Tomar) has his own political weight. But in politics, if Rajnath Singh (a former agriculture minister) had led talks and succeeded in ending the deadlock, all credit would have been gone to him,” said a BJP leader. “In Tomar’s case, the credit will go to Shah and the PM, not too much to Tomar.”
Over the past weeks, Shah has held a number of meetings with Rajnath, Tomar, Goyal and BJP president J.P. Nadda to resolve the crisis created by the farmers protests.
This is the second time that the Modi government is facing farmers’ wrath and distrust. The first time was in 2015, when the land ordinance, which allowed easier land acquisition by companies, brought farmers out in protest. At the time, the late BJP leader Arun Jaitley had emerged as the party’s chief troubleshooter. However, despite his defence of the law, the government had to backtrack from the ordinance.
This time, the Chanakya is Shah himself, but the face is Tomar, said sources.
While Tomar is a seasoned leader from a farming background, he is usually seen as keeping a low profile and is not known to harbour much ambitions for power.
According to BJP insiders, his lack of ambition and quiet work are seen as his best qualities among senior party leaders.
It is a facet that is said to have underpinned Tomar’s entire journey in politics, from Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi, and helped him land the high-profile agriculture ministry that has formed an important pitstop in the careers of prominent leaders like Singh and Sharad Pawar.
‘Jai-Veeru of MP’
Narendra Singh Tomar was born on 12 June 1957 in Madhya Pradesh.
His rapport with Modi dates back over two decades, to the time the latter assumed the role of the BJP’s organisational in-charge in Madhya Pradesh in 1998.
At the time, Modi stayed at the Gwalior house of Narayan Krishna Shejwalker, a stalwart of the BJP’s predecessor Jana Sangh, and Tomar, then an MLA, would often meet him there.
Despite their relationship, it is said that it was actually Rajnath Singh — the BJP president when the party won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — who recommended Tomar’s inclusion in the first Modi government as steel and mines minister.
Within Madhya Pradesh, he has served as rural development and information minister, a profile he held in the Uma Bharti as well as Shivraj Singh Chouhan cabinets.
His importance in the party is often linked to his close equation with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Chouhan. Such is their friendship, insiders say, that they are known as the “Jai-Veeru” — a reference to the friendship immortalised by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay — of MP.
Their friendship dates back to the time when Chouhan served as youth morcha chief and Tomar as his deputy in the 1990s. During Chouhan’s first tenure as chief minister, he recommended Tomar’s appointment as state BJP president in 2006 — a post Tomar eventually served for two terms.
“The chemistry between the two is such that when Tomar resigned as minister to assume charge as state BJP chief — in keeping with the BJP practice of one person, one post — on 19 November 2007, Shivraj ji did not forward his resignation to the governor till February, convincing him to continue in both posts,” said a BJP leader.
Before he assumed his second term as MP BJP chief, ahead of the 2013 assembly elections, Tomar announced that he will not contest the polls.
A leader of the state BJP said the decision was meant to “please Chouhan, to convince him that he won’t be a challenger to him after the polls”.
Their friendship is believed to have been cemented by an episode in 2000 where Chouhan defied the party to enter the race for state BJP chief against then incumbent, Bikram Verma, who was also a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet. “The central BJP termed Shivraj’s nomination a rebellion. In the BJP, elections happen by consensus. However, Tomar sided with Chouhan, and the latter subsequently rewarded him politically,” a former MP BJP president said.
Another leader of the BJP said Chouhan had a role in pushing Tomar towards central politics because “every chief minister wants their point person in the Delhi BJP or government to back him in the state and keep tabs on the central high command’s strategy”.
“It was Shivraj ji’s strategy to fit Tomar in central politics. Tomar ji’s best quality is that he is not too ambitious, unlike (Kailash) Vijayvargiya. This suits Shivraj Singh,” the leader added.
It was during Tomar’s first stint as state BJP president that then BJP chief Nitin Gadkari made him a part of the central team as a general secretary, the leader said. “Shivraj ji then installed another favourite, Prabhat Jha, as state president but again, before the assembly elections, convinced the central BJP to send Tomar back as state president.”
Not a mass leader
During his early days in politics, Tomar was nurtured by Kushabhau Thakre, a giant of MP politics who served as national BJP president from 1998 to 2000. He also emerged as a favourite of Kailash Joshi, the first BJP leader to become chief minister of the state, and Sunder Lal Patwa, who also served as chief minister and later became minister of agriculture and mines in the erstwhile Vajpayee cabinet.
Tomar is described a a leader who has been a part of politics at every level.
His political journey started as a ward member in early 1980, and he became councillor in 1983. He was given a ticket to contest assembly elections in 1993, but he lost. He was elected as MLA in 1998, and remained a member of the House till 2008.
“He is the only leader who has been a member of all democratic institutions, from college president to youth morcha to ward member to assembly and Parliament, and also Union minister,” said a close aide. “Basically, he is an organisational man who knows how to run the organisation.”
If there is one thing that goes against him, it is that he is not known to be a mass leader, unlike Chouhan.
In last month’s Madhya Pradesh assembly bypolls, the BJP lost three seats in Tomar’s home district Morena. He contested and won his maiden Lok Sabha election from Morena in 2009, but went to Gwalior in 2014, where he won by a margin of 24,000 votes, before returning to Morena, which he currently represents in the Lok Sabha.
Even so, his organisational skills have earned him Shah’s trust.
To explain just how much Shah trusts Tomar, sources in the BJP pointed out that he — along with Dharmendra Pradhan and Narottam Mishra — was involved in the process to induct Jyotiraditya Scindia and his MLA loyalists, who defected from the Congress to the BJP earlier this year, before Chouhan was included.
According to sources, Shah wanted to make him chief minister after the Congress government fell. However, Prime Minister Modi intervened, knowing only Chouhan could ensure victory in the bypolls, a senior BJP leader said.
“His (Tomar’s) main qualities are that he is down-to-earth, he is good in organisation work, he listens to every one, never imposes his own thoughts… He is basically a consensus-builder,” added a BJP general secretary.
“He has no detractor, he always maintains a relationship with everyone, even Congress people respect him. During the councillor elections in 1983, a Congress leader gave Tomar his home for use during the polls. Whatever work he is assigned, he delivers without making noise. Nobody has ever seen him angry. He is a good human being and trustworthy. These are rare qualities in public life,” the leader said.