New Delhi: The quiet and unassuming J.P. Nadda has become the 11th president of BJP.
The 59-year-old was Monday unanimously elected the new president in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and several chief ministers of BJP-ruled states.
Nadda had been serving as the BJP working president since June 2019 and his elevation comes three weeks ahead of the crucial Delhi assembly elections.
It’s a steep rise for the man from Himachal Pradesh, who in less than 10 years in Delhi has become an RSS favourite, a trusted confidant of Modi and Shah, and has risen to the most coveted post in the party.
He is the third Brahmin to hold the post after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi.
Stumbling blocks in Himachal, steep rise in Delhi
Nadda’s rise to the top, however, hasn’t been without its hurdles.
He had been at loggerheads with former Himachal chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, who controlled the party in the hill state, when he was brought to the national capital.
The turning point in Nadda’s career came in 2010 when Union minister Nitin Gadkari was the BJP president.
Nadda and Gadkari entered national politics almost together, and while Gadkari rose to take the top post in the party with RSS backing, Nadda was fending off Dhumal’s efforts to sideline him in Himachal.
It was then that Gadkari brought the Himachal politician to Delhi, appointing him as a general secretary. Nadda’s political career then added a new dimension.
He quickly earned a Rajya Sabha ticket and was sworn in as the health minister when Modi first took power in 2014. His rise was also helped by an old connection — when the prime minister was the BJP in-charge of Himachal in the 1990s, Nadda was then a budding politician.
With the new BJP dispensation in the national capital, Nadda’s graph began to grow. But even then the old Himachal ghosts came back to haunt him.
When the BJP took power in Himachal 2017, Nadda was the frontrunner to take over as the chief minister. But Dhumal insisted on a Rajput for the post, saying the state’s caste make-up had to be kept in mind. It resulted in Nadda losing out despite Modi-Shah backing.
BJP insiders, however, say it was Dhumal settling scores for his election defeat. Dhumal was the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Himachal but he lost the 2017 elections from Sujanpur constituency, which he had been made to fight from just before the elections.
According to the insiders, it was Nadda who got the party to get Dhumal to fight from Sujanpur as opposed to his pocket-borough of Hamirpur.
The reverse in Himachal, however, did little to derail Nadda’s career in Delhi. He was appointed as the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh in-charge, along with senior Gujarat leader Gordhan Zadaphia, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The party secured 62 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
“All credit went to Nadda,” a BJP insider said. “Zadaphia was sent back to Gujarat without any promotion.”
Following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Nadda didn’t take oath in the Modi cabinet, amid speculation that he was destined for a big post.
By June, he was elected the BJP working president before finally taking over the party Monday. “It is a massive achievement,” Himachal minister Suresh Bharadwaj told ThePrint. “Even two political giants from Himachal — Shanta Kumar and Dhumal — never attained such heights despite being mass leaders in the state.”
Nadda was born to a Himachali Brahmin family in Patna. His father N.L. Nadda was the vice-chancellor of Ranchi University. His wife Mallica Nadda is a professor at Himachal Pradesh University (HPU).
A student leader, Nadda was elected secretary of Patna University in 1977. He was a product of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement but moved back to his home state for higher studies, pursuing law from HPU.
It was here that he joined the ABVP, the student wing of RSS.
Nadda served as the ABVP national general secretary from 1986 to 1989, and helped organise protests against the then Rajiv Gandhi government on the Bofors issue. He was made the BJP Yuva Morcha president in 1991.
“Nadda’s early stint as ABVP general secretary and BJP Yuva Morcha president helped him lot,” said Suresh Bharadwaj. “He came in contact with K.N. Govindacharya, the RSS ideologue who was then the third most powerful man after Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.”
It was also around this time that senior BJP leader Shanta Kumar spotted him and appointed him as his election agent. In 1993, Nadda was handed a ticket to fight the assembly elections from Bilaspur.
“His agitation for a college in Bilaspur made him popular in that election,” said his former ABVP colleague and three-time BJP MP Suresh Chandel, who has now switched over to the Congress.
Nadda won the 1993 contest and was made the BJP legislature party leader after all important party leaders, including Shanta Kumar, lost in the elections.
It was in the 1990s that Nadda made a connection that has now come to help him immensely — a rapport with Prime Minister Modi who was then the Himachal BJP incharge.
Nadda won the Bilaspur seat again in 1998 and was made health minister in the then Prem Kumar Dhumal government. He lost in 2003 but bounced back in the 2007 elections and was made the forest minister in the Dhumal government. By 2010, however, having fallen out with the chief minister, he landed up in Delhi as the BJP general secretary.
An accommodating leader
Nadda’s rise in the BJP has been aided by the fact that he is seen as an accommodating leader. “His biggest strength is that he never annoys anyone,” said a senior BJP general secretary. “He listens to everyone, never asserts himself and never goes beyond his brief.”
Another senior BJP leader said Nadda is known for his amicable behaviour. “He is good in organisational matters, is nice to everyone and is never ambitious. He is unlike the shrewd politician that Rajnath Singh is and he is not assertive like Gadkari and Venkaiah Naidu.”
Critics, however, say Nadda is a destiny politician and a product of loyalty. “He is not a mass leader nor an impact leader even in his home state,” said a Himachal BJP leader. “He is very calculative.”
Critics also cite his familial connections. His mother-in-law, Jayashree Banerjee, was a veteran BJP politician and minister in the Madhya Pradesh government from 1977 to 1980. Banerjee, who was elected Jabalpur MP in 2000, was also a family friend of former BJP president Kushabhau Thakre.
Challenges before Nadda
The very first challenge facing the new BJP president is the Delhi assembly elections, all the more so has Shah has relinquished his post just weeks before the election.
The senior BJP leader quoted above said Nadda’s biggest strength is the backing of Modi and Shah, and hence he may not feel the heat of the Delhi elections. “Even if the party fails, Nadda will not be blamed until the Modi-Shah duo think otherwise,” the leader said.
The next task will be the high-profile assembly elections in Bihar but the onus will be on the Nitish Kumar-Sushil Modi duo to deliver the state. Nadda could use his Bihar connections to keep warring Nitish in good humour.
The BJP’s massive test will be in West Bengal, which goes to elections in 2021. But with Shah having invested himself in winning the state, Nadda would be left with little to do.
“Nadda’s test will begin after West Bengal when other assembly elections are due. Until then, he can enjoy his authority,” said the senior BJP leader.
The new president, though, seems to be aware of his challenges. In the last six months, he has been drawing from the Amit Shah playbook, having visited almost all the states in the period.