Nitin Gadkari: Modi's quiet challenger waiting in the wings

Even as Narendra Modi has centralised control, running almost all ministries through the prime minister’s office, Gadkari has retained a great deal of autonomy. PTI

In recent years, Nitin Gadkari, the union cabinet minister for roads, has been on the rise. From the relative obscurity of the Maharashtra legislative council, Gadkari won a parliamentary election from Maharashtra’s Nagpur constituency in 2014, which is also home to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s headquarters. He subsequently became the prime minister Narendra Modi’s transport tsar, consolidating most ministerial portfolios pertaining to the field.

For the upcoming Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party has again fielded Gadkari as its candidate from the Nagpur constituency. In “Son of The Sangh,” the cover story from The Caravan’s April 2018 issue, Praveen Donthi found that Gadkari is the RSS’s “favourite son.” This has caused considerable friction with the prime minister, who is known for not abiding parallel power structures.

The following excerpt from Donthi’s story chronicles how Modi stalled both his aspirations to become the chief minister of Maharashtra, as well as his ambitions to reap political capital from his important portfolios. He also reported how Gadkari is one of the only members of the union cabinet who does not fear the wrath of the prime minister, and hopes to succeed him once Modi mania fades away.

On 26 July 2014, two months after Narendra Modi became the prime minister, the Sunday Guardian broke a story that sophisticated listening devices had been found in the official residence of Nitin Gadkari, a minister in Modi’s cabinet. The newspaper, closely aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, cited an anonymous source saying that the devices had been planted by US intelligence, and Subramanian Swamy, a member of parliament with the newly ruling BJP, alleged that the bugging had been done under the previous, Congress-led government.

Gadkari himself, in a tweet the next morning, called the story “highly speculative,” but stopped short of dismissing it outright. In parliament, opposition parties called for a probe and a statement from the prime minister, disrupting proceedings for two days. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, denied the story, but this did not dissuade them. It was a strange situation: the opposition was protesting the surveillance of a ruling minister, while members of the ruling party seemed too scared to speak up.

Gadkari categorically denied the story only on the second day after it appeared. According to a piece in Outlook magazine about a month later, Mohan Bhagwat—the head of the BJP’s political parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who has long been close to Gadkari—had intervened to ask him “to deny the snooping incident in public suggesting that it would dent the image of the BJP and the prime minister.”

In Nagpur, the RSS’s home, the accepted truth is that Gadkari is the organisation’s favourite son. This was affirmed in 2009, when he was made the youngest ever national president of the BJP to the great displeasure of the party’s senior leaders in Delhi, and again in 2012, when the party’s constitution was amended to allow him a second term—although that term never came to pass, after allegations surfaced that the Congress-led government in Maharashtra had handed some hundred acres of agricultural land it had ostensibly acquired for a dam to businesses connected to Gadkari. In the 2014 general election, he represented the BJP in Nagpur despite a lack of prior electoral success, and was voted into the Lok Sabha. When Modi formed his government, Gadkari was given charge of two ministries: the ministry of road transport and highways—coveted since it handles massive, money-spinning infrastructure projects, and since the roads it builds serve as advertisements for its work—as well as the ministry of shipping. In 2017, he also took charge of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation. Even as Modi has zealously centralised control, running almost all ministries through his own office, Gadkari has held on to power in his own, and used it to deliver visible results. This makes him an exception in the Modi cabinet—a minister who is doing well and being noticed for it, and cannot easily be undermined. “Most ministers are wary that the PM is watching,” a lobbyist for numerous large corporations told me. “He is not scared, because of the RSS’s backing. He might be respectful of the PM, but not fearful.”

Many people, particularly in Nagpur, told me that if the RSS decided to replace Modi as the prime minister for any reason, it would choose Gadkari to take his place. In the organisation’s eyes, the Nagpur man, despite the lack of a mass base, ticks many boxes: a palatable caste and a record of loyalty; strong connections to major corporations in Mumbai, and an ability to manage money; bridges to politicians beyond his own party; an image not nearly as tainted by communal spite as Modi’s, hence sellable to a wider electorate; and, especially since entering the government, a carefully tended claim to good administration. In my interviews, people often compared him with one or all of the Maharashtrian leaders Pramod Mahajan, Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel—three politicians who share a renown for liaising across party lines, being intimate with major corporations, and raising party funds, not always through wholly scrupulous means.

Modi, as always in his career, has not been happy to watch the emergence of a possible rival. The result has been a subterranean rivalry playing out in the present government. “There is a tussle going on between the RSS and Modi—both want to pull down each other,” the political journalist Sujata Anandan, who has known Gadkari since his youth, told me. For now, with Modi’s popularity and power soaring, “the RSS has no choice,” but “there is the Modi faction and then there is the RSS faction within the government.” The factionalism is intense, Anandan added, and “it’s Nitin Gadkari who keeps the other faction alive. But very quietly.”

Four months after the 2014 general election, Maharashtra voted for the state assembly. The BJP, despite breaking its 25-year alliance with the Shiv Sena, emerged as the single most popular party, and went on to lead the government.

In Vidarbha, the region of Maharashtra that includes Gadkari’s parliamentary constituency of Nagpur, the BJP won 44 of 62 seats—its best showing ever. Before anyone was chosen as chief minister, 39 assembly members from the region—led by Sudhir Mungantiwar, one of Gadkari’s close associates—declared themselves in favour of Gadkari taking the post. “It’s their love for me that has prompted them to urge me to become CM,” Gadkari, by then installed as a minister in Delhi, told the media. “But I have repeatedly said that I am not interested in returning to the state.” Sharad Pawar also backed Gadkari’s elevation, offering his Nationalist Congress Party’s support to the BJP on the condition that Gadkari be made the chief minister.

Gadkari would likely have relished being his own man as chief minister rather than just another minister in Modi’s cabinet. He was undisputedly the BJP’s senior statesman in Maharashtra. But, as the journalist Kumar Ketkar later wrote, “Modi could not have chosen Gadkari, who thought of himself as the ‘original development man’. Modi could not have created a parallel power centre. The chief minister of Maharashtra, by virtue of being in Mumbai, is automatically part of the corporate world. Gadkari is savvy with the wheeling-dealings of the stock market and the business community. That itself is seen by the Modi-Shah duo as a threat to their desire to control all levers of power across the country.”

“Modi knew that within a few months Gadkari would own Maharashtra,” Sujata Anandan told me. “Modi and Amit Shah wouldn’t be able to step into Maharashtra except with the benign acceptance of Gadkari.” With Gadkari in Delhi, they could track his every move. The chief minister’s post went to Devendra Fadnavis.

“When Gadkari became the president of Maharashtra BJP against their wish,” in 2004, Anandan said, Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde, the party’s veteran leaders in the state, “propped up Devendra Fadnavis. He is also a Brahmin, from Nagpur, and loyal to the RSS. There was nothing to distinguish between Gadkari and Fadnavis. But when both Munde and Mahajan died”—Mahajan was shot by an estranged brother in 2006; Munde died in a road accident in 2014—“the benefit didn’t go to Gadkari but to Fadnavis and Modi.”

In Delhi, Gadkari had hoped to be the new government’s transport tsar, in charge of the railways as well as the roads and shipping, according to several of his associates. Even though he was denied the railway ministry, he quickly got to work. It helped that, with his experience as the minister of public works in Maharashtra, he was familiar with how India’s roadways worked.

A public-relations executive working for an infrastructure firm told me that while Modi tried to dismantle the legacy of the preceding government, Gadkari chose a different course. “He wanted to see how things work, and then came up with his own solutions,” the executive said. “The first year the transport ministry didn’t make much noise.” Gadkari pitched himself as a moderniser and innovator, and talked up such things as running buses on ethanol.

“He is a bit of a roughneck,” a prominent Delhi-based lobbyist told me. “If he wants something done, he will tell the bureaucrats to do it or get out. He will use foul language and get things done. Other ministers think the bureaucrats have a direct line with the PM so they just remain passive. If you are the secretary, you kick ass in the ministry. But in the case of Gadkari, he kicks ass.”

The lobbyist added that Gadkari “openly praises or criticises the bureaucrats. He used to praise Sanjay Mitra, his secretary in the ministry of road transport and highways, a lot. He was promptly transferred to Defence Ministry.”

Another lobbyist, who works for numerous large corporations, pointed to Gadkari’s businessman-like approach. “The experiment of cement is a good example,” he said. “The cement prices were going up and he realised the big guys formed a cartel and were playing dirty. There were 117 small and medium cement units lying closed.” The ministry created a portal for its cement purchases. “The instructions were given regarding the quantity and quality of the cement,” and suppliers were informed that their products would be tested. “Many of the sick units got revived. Suddenly the cement production went up, and it didn’t come from the cartel. Only a business-minded man could have done it.”

Gadkari has created numerous subcommittees, mostly filled with RSS-affiliated men, that make recommendations and formulate policies for the road ministry. These act as an interface between the government and private sector.

Another hallmark of Gadkari’s style is his addiction to hyperbole—his tenure has been full of unrealistic targets and big announcements, especially when it comes to building roads. He has said that this is part of his method of pushing bureaucrats into action. One advantage of controlling the ministry of road transport and highways is that its performance can be tangibly measured, and the results shown off. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Gadkari set a target of building 41 kilometres of roads per day, making for a total of around 15,000 kilometres. (The per-day average during the first tenure of the previous government, between 2004 and 2009, was in the single figures.) The ministry achieved slightly over half this target, building some 8,200 kilometres that year.

In October 2017, the cabinet approved an expenditure of almost Rs 7 lakh crore—over $100 billion—towards the construction of what it said would be over eighty-three thousand kilometres of new roads. To arrive at that number, it included work due after the tenure of the current government expires, and old projects that were already ongoing.

“Gadkari has created a small event to unveil the smallest of things to get mileage and talk that work is happening in the ministry,” the public-relations executive told me. The prime minister’s office “then can use the numbers to showcase that the economy is on the path to recovery.”

But the relationship between the prime minister and the road minister has often been strained. “The first three projects—ambitious projects—and two foreign trips of Gadkari were not approved by Modi,” Ganesh Kanate, a former journalist close to Gadkari, told me. “When the fourth file was rejected, Gadkari got very upset.” He called Mohan Bhagwat, and, as Kanate told it, said, “I can’t work like this, I would rather come back and remain a swayamsevak.” Bhagwat rushed to Delhi “the next day and called for a late-night meeting” with just Modi and Gadkari. The RSS chief “asked Modi if Gadkari creates hurdles for him or hurts the image of his government, to which Modi replied no. The final truce was made—Gadkari will never criticise Modi within or outside the party, Gadkari should be given freedom to do his work.” Ever since, “Gadkari’s ministry is not interfered with much. Today, Modi’s biggest projects are happening in Gadkari’s ministry.”

The cabinet’s approval for the road-building project in October 2017 was announced at a press conference at the National Media Centre in central Delhi, just a short distance from the parliament. The event was presided over by Arun Jaitley in his capacity as the finance minister and received generous coverage. Gadkari was surprisingly absent.

“When we asked him why he wasn’t there for such a big occasion, he said that he’d been asked to hold the press conference the next day,” a journalist covering the road ministry told me. “The reason given was that the prime minister wanted staggered publicity.” But this was “just an excuse. He looked very upset.”

Gadkari held a press conference of his own the following day, at the same venue. The media, since it had already published all the relevant details, gave him scant attention.

“Gadkari openly promotes businesses,” the Delhi-based lobbyist told me, while “the government doesn’t seem to give a shit about business. The last meeting Modi had with the industry people was at the end of 2015.” Dilip Deodhar, a veteran RSS ideologue from Nagpur, said, “The concept of privatisation is at the heart of Gadkari’s success. If he likes something, he will announce it without thinking much. Businessmen will surround him as they know that the government would not be able to do it.”

The public-relations executive with an infrastructure firm told me that if Gadkari had been part of the previous administration, “he would have been just another minister,” but the current government “has a talent deficit, so he shines brightly.”

As the executive saw it, “The transport ministry is a legacy issue for him, even if it is for the 2024 election.” In September 2017, as the Modi government headed into its third cabinet reshuffle and the government searched for a new defence minister, the Indian Express reported, “As per the rumours, the front runner for the spot is former BJP president Nitin Gadkari but there are other reports that suggest that Gadkari is reluctant to move out of Transport.” Gadkari attended a meeting at the residence of the home minister, Rajnath Singh, where he was joined by Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs, and by Jaitley, at the time the stand-in defence minister. Speculation had it that this had to do with the defence portfolio. The following day, it was announced that the position had gone to Nirmala Sitharaman.

“Modi wanted to shift him to the defence ministry,” Anandan told me. “He put a lot of pressure on Gadkari but he resisted it. Nirmala was the fourth choice or something. Gadkari told the mediator, ‘There are only two more years for the government. You will have nothing to show. I won’t be able to accomplish much in two years in any other ministry.’”

“What Gadkari wanted was not any other ministry, but the positioning of number two” in the government, Kanate said. There was also talk that Gadkari would be given the railways, fulfilling his earlier desire, but that did not come to pass either. Kanate related Gadkari’s view, as he saw it: “It should’ve happened in the beginning, not now. I won’t accept it for two years, whatever it is we can do afterwards.” Kanate added that Gadkari accepted charge of the ministry of water resources—and with it the government’s stalled Ganga clean-up—“only because Modi really insisted on it.”

Such irreverence for Modi’s wishes has, according to the lobbyist for numerous large corporations, earned Gadkari the “grudging respect” even of government figures such as Jaitley. Piyush Goyal, the power minister at the time, said at a public event in 2016 that Gadkari is the most vocal figure in cabinet meetings. Gadkari himself has on occasion made the point, carefully, that Modi does not run a one-man show, and that he does not hesitate to speak his mind to the prime minister.

The Delhi-based lobbyist told me a story he had heard from a minister. On 8 November 2016, as Modi prepared to announce his surprise decision to annul all high-denomination bank notes, he gathered his top ministers. After handing each a piece of blank paper, he asked for their opinions on whether he should withdraw all Rs 1,000 notes, all Rs 500 notes, or both. “Jaitley, being the finance minister, said, ‘We can demonetise 1,000-rupee notes but not 500-rupee notes. It will be a big jolt.’ To which Modi, not in jest but sarcasm, said, ‘Are you saying this because lawyers mostly store their money in 500s?’ Rajnath said, ‘Pehle hi kar dena chahiye tha, I am fully supportive of it.’” Venkaiah Naidu, also a cabinet minister, supported the move as well. Then it was Gadkari’s turn. “He said, ‘This problem of black money should be finished once and for all. Demonetise everything from 1,000 to 100. Nobody keeps bundles of 50-rupee notes.’ Modi was taken aback.” When a colleague later asked Gadkari about this, “he said, ‘He had already made up his mind, he was just doing a paper exercise to corner us. So I tried to go one up on him.’”

The lobbyist for numerous large corporations said that Gadkari is “the only man who can openly crack jokes about the PM.” He relayed another famous story—such tales are so rare that they are widely savoured in Delhi’s power circles—about how the BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain went to Gadkari, sometime in the late summer of 2015, “and said, ‘What is this government you are running? I devoted my entire life, despite being a Muslim, to this party. Every week I have been asking for an appointment to meet the PM, but in vain.’ Gadkari replied, ‘Shahnawaz, why are you asking me? He is a man who met his mother after two years.’”

“Earlier, the BJP was a political party,” a leader who played an important role in the party when Gadkari was the president told me. But since Modi became prime minister, and Amit Shah took the party presidency, “it has a quasi-corporate structure, with a chairman, who is an executive chairman, and a CEO, who is a full-time CEO.” But if the party starts to see its dominant electoral numbers under Modi begin to slide, the leader said, “the situation will change back to 2012.”

When Gadkari appeared on stage at a high-profile gathering organised by the India Today media group earlier this year, the news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai brought up the possibility of the BJP not winning an absolute majority in the next election. In that scenario, Sardesai said, Modi could not be the prime minister as he does not get along with other parties well enough to hold together a ruling coalition—but someone more widely agreeable, such as Gadkari, might. Gadkari laughed away the suggestion. “I don’t dream of becoming prime minister,” he said. “I got a lot more than I deserve … The party has chosen Modi, and under his leadership we will get majority in 2019 and he will be the prime minister of the country.”

“Nitin is a good man—he has become a bureaucrat, he sticks to his job,” one of Gadkari’s close friends told me. “He is not in a mood to stand up to somebody. Everyone is happy.” But he gave away details of skirmishes happening behind the scenes. Gadkari’s men, he said, “such as Anshuman Mishra”—a businessman Gadkari backed for election to the Rajya Sabha in 2012—“are not allowed to come back to the party despite the RSS backing.” He added that Sudhir Mangantiwar, Eknath Khadse and Ashish Shelar, all BJP leaders in Maharashtra who are close to Gadkari, “despite having posts have been sidelined. The only motive was Gadkari shouldn’t be strengthened.”

The BJP leader with a major role in the party under Gadkari offered another before-and-after comparison as well. “Earlier, the Sangh had a lot more say,” he said. “Now, it has been reduced to the job of a human-resource manager. They recommend people, but the CEO arbitrarily takes decisions. But at the same time, the RSS has never had it so good. People are suddenly interested in the RSS. They also don’t want to upset the apple cart.”

“Modi grew in power in Gujarat by his deeds and ran the administration like it is a classroom and he is the head teacher,” the Delhi-based lobbyist said. “The RSS became irrelevant. He is convinced that he doesn’t need the RSS, because he thinks, ‘People are with me.’ He has become bigger than the BJP or the RSS. The RSS doesn’t like it.” He added that while “Modi has no equation with the RSS,” Gadkari has a great one.

When Modi made a trip to Nagpur in April 2017, he sent advance word that he wanted Mohan Bhagwat to come visit him where he was staying. “Even Vajpayee came to the Sangh headquarters” when he came to the city, a veteran journalist in Nagpur told me. “The protocol would be breached, the RSS thought. Bhagwat and all the other leaders went on tour that day.” Gadkari “would never do that kind of a thing—he would just turn up at the headquarters. That’s the contrast. Modi will test the limits.” At present, the journalist said, “there is extreme anxiety in the Sangh Parivar about Modi and Amit Shah. They are more comfortable with Rajnath, and like Gadkari.”

This is one of several factors in Gadkari’s favour. Another is his ready access to corporate support. “He leaves Adani alone to Modi, but he has a good equation with Mukesh bhai and others,” a close associate of Gadkari’s in the BJP said. “Why does Ratan Tata or Mukesh Ambani go to visit him in Nagpur? They all see promise in this man.” The big corporations are standing behind Modi, “but when the time comes, the RSS will just give a hint and the corporates will change track.” With this, raising money for the party should be easy too. “Gadkari is not a fund-collector anymore for the party,” the corporate lobbyist said. “Piyush also knows the Bombay businesses well, all the funds for elections are now raised by him.” But “Gadkari, of course, is in a class of his own.”

“Gadkari was happy to be identified as a Brahmin loyal to the RSS. It could have been a limiting factor, but while keeping this aspect alive, he has managed to become this business-savvy, techno-friendly, new-age politician,” the senior journalist Smruti Koppikar told me. “It made the industry big-boys club in Bombay see him in a positive light, not as a typical RSS-wala from Nagpur. When he wore those jackets to boardrooms of Bombay, he never allowed his khaki knickers to show. When he is in Nagpur, he wears the khaki knickers and blends in there.” Dilip Deodhar said that “Gadkari has a working style that is not Brahmin-like though he is a Brahmin.”

Kanate emphasised that “Gadkari never gave any speech with communal connotations.” It is Modi, he said, who “represents the communal approach,” while “Gadkari’s conviction is not in communal politics.” That might be too forgiving a reading. When I mentioned it to a close associate of Gadkari’s, he said, “I know the liberals of Delhi love this idea, that if the BJP has to stay in power then at least let’s have Gadkari instead of Modi. But it’s only wishful thinking.”

At a massive celebration for his sixtieth birthday in Nagpur in 2017, Gadkari quoted, as he occasionally likes to do, the former US president Richard Nixon. “The man is not finished when he is defeated,” he told the crowd, “but he is finished when he quits.” He also shared what he called his motto in life: “Don’t break the rules, bend the rules.” Gadkari added that the chief minister “of every state thinks I favour his or her state the most, and I am happy about it.” At the same event, Sharad Pawar declared, “Gadkari is the first BJP leader, having an RSS background, to come outside its ideology and maintain good, cordial relations with political parties and politicians across the country.”

In March 2018, the RSS’s top executive body elected Suresh Rao Joshi, the organisation’s general secretary—widely known as “Bhaiyyaji”—to a fourth consecutive three-year term, amid intense speculation that he might be replaced by Dattatreya Hosabale, currently an additional general secretary. This was seen as a setback to Modi, and a sign of the RSS’s resistance to him, since Hosabale was known to be the prime minister’s preferred candidate. Manmohan Vaidya, son of the RSS veteran MG Vaidya, was given a position of similar rank to Hosabale’s, as was Krishna Gopal. The Vaidyas have consistently favoured Gadkari and opposed Modi—Manmohan was pushed out of Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister there—and Gopal “has a strong working relationship with Gadkari,” according to one of Gadkari’s close associates.

“If Modi stays till 2024, then it will be down to Fadnavis, backed by Modi, and Gadkari,” the associate told me. “The PM candidate will be decided by Modi. The Sangh and corporates will also have a say. Modiji might choose Fadnavis, and the Sangh has no problem with him. Gadkari is aware of the competition from Fadnavis.”

Gadkari and the BJP’s Nagpur unit have already begun in earnest their campaign to retain the city’s Lok Sabha seat in 2019. Their declared target is to increase the margin of victory, from three hundred thousand votes in 2014 to seven hundred thousand.

Kanate was confident that “even if Modi gets five more years” in the 2019 general election, “Gadkari will still be in the reckoning. He will wait till such moment when the search will be on for Modi’s replacement. He is waiting patiently. Experience deficit is the biggest weakness of this government. The RSS wants Gadkari to get the experience of a central minister and be ready.”

Gadkari, Kanate added, “understands that this Modi mania will wear off. Pyaz se laya hua bukhar hai, utar jaayega”—It is an artificial fever that will go.

This is an extract from The Caravan’s April 2018 cover story, “Son of the Sangh.” It has been edited and condensed.