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.
The report of the bugging erupted against the background of persistent rumours that ministers were under surveillance by the prime minister’s office. A story circulated of how the environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, while on the way to the airport attired in jeans at the start of an official trip abroad, received a call telling him that he was dressed too casually. In television debates on the bugging, the possibility of surveillance by the government or someone within the BJP cropped up time and again. Congress leaders pointed back to 2013, when there were allegations that Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had put a woman under surveillance for no legally tenable reason. The Congress leader Digvijay Singh stated that Modi and Amit Shah—Modi’s main lieutenant, and his home minister when he ruled Gujarat—“have sort of had a record.”
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. 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.”
Gadkari’s full importance is not immediately evident in the national capital, where he is rarely seen as more than a bridge between the BJP and the RSS. Like many regional leaders, away from his home turf he loses a good deal of his political mojo. He lacks the charisma or sophistication that could get him due attention from the Delhi media, and becomes a talking point only on the occasions he is touched by controversy—typically for airing outlandish ideas such as organising the collection of human urine for use as a substitute to fertiliser.
Yet behind the scenes, many people, particularly in Nagpur—including businessmen and former bureaucrats with intimate ties to the RSS, journalists who cover the organisation or work for publications affiliated to it, and leaders of both the RSS and the BJP—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.”
NITIN GADKARI WAS BORN in 1957, to Jairam and Bhanutai Gadkari. The Gadkaris were a Deshastha Brahmin family of modest means, with some agricultural land in Dhapewada village, near Nagpur. They lived in an area of old Nagpur called Mahal, close to the RSS’s headquarters.
Gadkari, in speeches and interviews, often speaks of his mother as his inspiration. MG Vaidya, an influential RSS veteran who served as an organising secretary of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner to the BJP, in Nagpur during the 1960s, told me he remembers seeing a five-year-old Gadkari at party meetings with his mother, a party worker. The young boy also used to attend the RSS’s oldest shakha—a daily gathering of the cadre—in the neighbourhood of Tulsibagh. Shyam Pandharipande, a former journalist and a childhood friend of Gadkari’s, told me that “the family was steeped in the RSS culture, and he was born and brought up in that milieu.”
Gadkari was not a meritorious student in either school or college. He took to political activism early, and joined the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student organisation of the RSS. After graduating from Nagpur’s GS College of Commerce and Economics, he joined the law college at Nagpur University. This, according to Pandharipande, was “probably because the ABVP wanted him to continue in politics.”
Where before the RSS had shied away from openly political work, in the early 1970s, under a new leader in Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras, it unabashedly threw itself into Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement to oppose Indira Gandhi. Gadkari was coming of age at just around this time—his and the RSS’s political journeys have been coterminous. Gadkari, like many present BJP leaders, is fond of recalling his part in activism against the Emergency. Anil Sole, a long-time associate of Gadkari’s who was two years his junior in college, told me that in 1977, after the Emergency ended and student elections recommenced, Gadkari contested the presidency of the university students’ union. He lost by just six votes, Gadkari later told an interviewer.
After the founding of the BJP, in 1980, Gadkari joined its youth wing, the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha, and became its president for Nagpur. After that, he was appointed the secretary of the BJP’s Nagpur unit. Gadkari ran a modest furniture shop in partnership with a friend, and got married in 1984.
These were days of absolute Congress domination, and the BJP was a pushover, seen as an urban party of the bhatji and sethji—the Brahmin and the bania. In 1985, Gadkari stood for election to the Maharashtra assembly from the Nagpur West constituency—an electoral graveyard for the BJP, dominated by Dalits and the Other Backward Classes—and, as expected, lost terribly. He never contested a seat in the assembly again.
Through these early years, Gadkari was mentored by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader Gangadhar Rao Fadnavis—father to Devendra Fadnavis, the current chief minister of Maharashtra. In 1987, while serving as a member of Maharashtra’s legislative council, the senior Fadnavis succumbed to cancer. The party chose Gadkari to contest his vacant seat, representing a graduates’ constituency for Nagpur division. He won it in 1989, aged 31, and became the youngest member of the state’s upper house. From there he played it safe, recontesting and retaining the same seat four times, until 2014.
“There were three legislative sessions in one year, but they wouldn’t attract much public attention,” Pandharipande, who was a journalist in those days, told me. “Despite that, Gadkari worked a lot and made it count. He played an important role in the party.” Gadkari, Pandharipande added, was impressed by Sharad Pawar, then a young Congress leader and the state’s chief minister, and would try to emulate Pawar’s style for the rest of his career.
The conventional political wisdom those days was that Maharashtrian voters were averse to Brahmin leaders—a hangover from the brutal reign of the Peshwas, Brahmin rulers of the Maratha Empire. To counter the view of the BJP as a Brahmin party, Pramod Mahajan, who ran the party’s state unit, promoted his brother-in-law, Gopinath Munde, a leader from the Other Backward Classes. Gadkari, though he was soon appointed the general secretary of the state unit, suffered. Even in Nagpur and the surrounding region of Vidarbha, Gadkari’s power was eclipsed by Mahajan’s point man for the area, Arvind Shahapurkar.
In 1995, an alliance of the BJP and the Shiv Sena achieved the unthinkable by defeating the Congress to take power in Maharashtra. The alliance owed much to the rapport Mahajan had built up with the Shiv Sena’s leader, Bal Thackeray, and with the victory Mahajan’s dominance of the BJP in Maharashtra was complete. Gadkari, though he was the BJP’s highest-ranked leader from Vidarbha—the party won just a single state assembly seat in the Congress-dominated region—did not figure in the alliance government’s list of ministerial appointments. “Manohar Joshi, a Brahmin, was already the chief minister, and there was no space for one more in the cabinet was the thinking,” Dilip Deodhar, a veteran RSS ideologue in Nagpur, told me. “Pramod Mahajan told Gadkari that he won’t let him become a minister.”
According to Sujata Anandan, in her book Maharashtra Maximus: The State, Its People and Politics, “The RSS did not quite care for either Mahajan or the Shiv Sena … and did not much appreciate what Mahajan had done for the BJP in terms of the alliance. So the RSS cut Mahajan down to size by propping up Nitin Gadkari.”
Shahapurkar, who was then influential in the BJP in Vidarbha, told me that the RSS did not think Gadkari should “stay behind because of his caste, and supported Gadkari to be made the minister. He is the way the Sangh wants him to be.” Deodhar also said the RSS lobbied hard for its man, and, despite opposition from Mahajan and Munde, who had been appointed the deputy chief minister, the organisation prevailed upon LK Advani, then the president of the BJP, to back Gadkari’s claim.
In 1996, Gadkari was appointed the minister of the public-works department, and also the guardian minister of Nagpur. Pandharipande recalled that Gadkari had instead wanted to be the minister of power; the public-works department only allowed for a low profile, and was notoriously inefficient and corrupt. Even so, Gadkari would use it as a springboard to bigger things.
THE BJP-SHIV SENA ALLIANCE, intent on burnishing its credentials, made it a flagship initiative to construct 55 flyovers in Mumbai, as well as a six-lane expressway linking Mumbai and Pune that was to cut the travel time between the two cities in half. The expressway had been conceptualised under the previous government, headed by the Congress’s Sharad Pawar, but, as Anandan wrote in Outlook in 1998, the Congress had been “hesitant since the expressway would have displaced people en route. By the time the project looked feasible on paper, the new government had taken over. … As minister, Gadkari was asked to attend to the expressway and flyover projects.”
Gadkari has never tired of saying that, in four years in charge of public works, he got the job done. In India Aspires: Redefining Politics of Development, his 2013 paean to himself, he wrote, “These projects set a precedent … for the entire country. It had a clear message for every bureaucrat in the country—integrity and willpower can defeat endless hurdles that come your way.” He has made it a point to tell the world how he went about it.
The government needed more than Rs 4,000 crore to finance the projects—money that it did not have. The liberalisation of the economy in 1991 had loosened constraints on the private sector, but building infrastructure was still largely seen as a duty and reserve of the government. Gadkari takes credit for introducing to India a model of public-private partnership known as build–operate–transfer: a concept he picked up on an official trip to Malaysia, which involves granting the entity building a project a concession to operate it so as to recover costs.
Gadkari and his supporters have spoken untiringly of how he turned down a Rs 3,200-crore tender for the Mumbai-Pune expressway from Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Industries. He entrusted the project instead to the newly created and state-owned Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, which, backed by a loan guarantee from the government, raised the necessary funds on the market and completed the projects at a far lower cost. “Finally, in a cabinet meeting where we discussed the Reliance proposal, I stuck my neck out and refused to accept it,” Gadkari wrote in India Aspires. “Accepting such an inflated tender would have implied giving in to exploitation of both the government and the shareholders.”
A long-time journalist from Maharashtra told me that politics played a part in this. Mahajan was close to the Ambanis and favoured granting the contract to Reliance.
Congress leaders later contended that only a quarter of the expressway was built under the Sena-BJP government, leaving the rest of the work to the Congress government that succeeded it—but such protests remained muted. Gadkari, in his book, gave some credit to Ramesh Chandra Sinha, a tough bureaucrat who worked with him, but otherwise reserved all praise for himself.
“I have to thank Nitin Gadkari and Manohar Joshi for not interfering in what I did,” Sinha said in a 2009 interview with the business journalist Sucheta Dalal. “It’s not that we did not have differences, but we settled them inside a room. I told the Minister that others would take advantage if they knew we had any differences.”
Dalal, in a later piece, gave Gadkari credit for cutting through red tape and streamlining the necessary processes. Others saw his efforts in a different light, and accused him of bulldozing his way through problems and protests surrounding the acquisition of land for the expressway.
“Soon after the expressway was opened, there was a lot of dacoity, especially at night-time,” Anandan told me. “The highway patrol realised that it’s the villagers, who are resentful. They would either loot or even kill. The Congress came back and sat down with them to deal with it. Gadkari today goes around tom-toming, ‘I built the expressway.’”
Gadkari asserts in India Aspires that financing work via the market allowed him to use the budget of the public-works department to build roads in almost 14,000 villages. (A profile of Gadkari released by the BJP in 2009 said that he secured a soft loan from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development for the purpose.)
As the minister of public works, Gadkari also built flyovers and roads in Nagpur. Pandharipande told me that Gadkari came to the city in the very week he became a minister and called a meeting with the local chief engineers. “There were about five to six flyover projects going on at the time,” Pandharipande recalled. “He said, ‘Which one could be completed before four years?’ And the Wardha Road flyover was chosen. That’s the pragmatism with which he worked.” Gadkari earned a lasting reputation in the city for this work; many in Nagpur told me a story of how Bal Thackeray used to call him roadkari and pulkari—a man who builds roads and bridges.
A veteran journalist in Delhi who covered the BJP for several decades told me there had been many stories that Gadkari was helping the RSS during his ministerial stint—a time when few of those in power cared much for the organisation. A senior BJP leader in Mumbai, who is close to the RSS, told me, “All the expenses of the RSS are met through the gurudakshina on Guru Purnima. The RSS takes only individual donations. The headquarters was also built that way. As the PWD minister, it is said, Gadkari facilitated in buying and the transfer of Hedgewar’s house to the RSS”—KB Hedgewar was the group’s founder—“as there was some legal complication.”
GADKARI WAS BECOMING a quintessentially Maharashtrian politician, steeped in a tradition defined by a mixing of politics and business, and also by inter-party camaraderie. As the journalist Smruti Koppikar described it, “Irrespective of which party the politician belongs to, the industrialist-friend-benefactor is also a friend of the rival party member. It’s a kind of ecosystem where the unspoken rule is you watch my back and I will watch yours, and spoils for everybody. Gadkari managed to find his place in the ecosystem.”
Sometimes this put Gadkari in difficult situations. In the 1998 general election, while he was still the minister, the BJP sent him to campaign not in his home district of Nagpur but in neighbouring Wardha district—where the party’s candidate, Vijay Mude, was up against Gadkari’s close friend Datta Meghe, of the Congress. The Indian Express reported at the time, “A section of the BJP leadership were afraid that Gadkari would lend clandestine support to Meghe, thereby weakening the BJP’s own nominee, Mude. Already a faction in the BJP, opposed to Gadkari, believed that he had helped his old friend Meghe when the latter had contested on a Lok Sabha ticket from Nagpur in 1991 and from Ramtek in 1996. The BJP leadership, therefore, took a clever step and asked Gadkari himself to see to it that Mude gets re-elected from the Wardha parliamentary constituency this time.” Meghe defeated Mude by a massive margin, even as the BJP managed to form a ruling coalition at the centre, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee.
In 1999, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance lost a state-assembly election, and ceded power to a combine of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party—a new splinter party headed by Sharad Pawar.
Gadkari became the leader of the opposition in the legislative council. “Gadkari used to fight with rival parties in the open but would shake hands in private,” a veteran Nagpur journalist told me. “Once, he levelled serious charges of some financial bungling in the council, and he had the proof. But when I approached him for the papers, he never gave them to me. That story never saw the light of the day.”
Anandan, looking back on her long association with Gadkari, wrote in a column in 2016, “I got to know of many of the intrigues between the Congress and the BJP from him—Nagpur was always a Congress bastion but there were so many factions within the party that rival groups had no qualms about joining hands with Gadkari to defeat their own party.” Two journalists I spoke to in Nagpur suggested that Gadkari might also have helped rival parties as a way to settle scores and eliminate competition inside the BJP.
Emulating Pawar, Gadkari looked to bolster his power by nurturing connections and influence in cooperative banks and societies on his home turf. For instance, his wife Kanchan and Anil Sole, his long-time associate, are both currently chairpersons of large cooperative banks.
This followed a model employed to great effect by Sharad Pawar and the NCP in western Maharashtra. Pawar’s associates controlled cooperative banks that provided vital credit to the area’s businessmen, mainly sugar manufacturers, many of whom were also local political leaders. The NCP assumed the role of patron. Anandan wrote in Maharashtra Maximus, “The fact that Pawar has continued as the uncrowned king of Maharashtra even after ceasing to be chief minister … can all be traced back to his family’s grip on the cooperative institutions of the state.”
Suraj Lolage, a former leader of the BJP’s youth wing in Nagpur, told me, “Nitin Gadkari is a man who can make money without any money. He knew that he could do politics only if he had money. … Gadkari understood how to use cooperative banks to his benefit.”
Gadkari’s record as the minister of public works brought him opportunity on the national stage. In 2000, when Vajpayee launched a flagship scheme for extending road access to villages, he appointed Gadkari the chairman of the National Rural Road Development Committee. After the BJP performed poorly again in the next Maharasthra assembly election, in 2004, there was a change at the top of the state unit, still dominated by Mahajan.
Advani disliked Mahajan—a favourite of Vajpayee’s—and backed Gadkari in place of Mahajan’s pick, Gopinath Munde. With a nudge from the RSS, the Nagpur man was elected to lead the party’s state unit. He was re-elected again, for a two-year stint, in 2006.
IN 2000, THE FIRST NON-BRAHMINsarsanghchalak of the RSS, Rajendra Singh, ceded leadership of the organisation to KS Sudarshan. Though Vajpayee was himself a product of the RSS, many of his coalition government’s actions had not gone down well with the group. The criticism reached a crescendo under the irrepressible Sudarshan, and a clamour grew for the RSS to take firm control of the BJP. For as long as Vajpayee and his deputy, Advani, remained in power, Sudarshan failed to pull this off, but after the BJP was defeated in the 2004 general election, he seized his chance.
In a television interview in 2005, Sudarshan said that Vajpayee and Advani “should step aside and guide the emergence of a new leadership.” After Advani praised Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, as a secular man, the RSS fanned a scandal that ended with him resigning as the leader of the BJP. Rajnath Singh, a pliant RSS man, took Advani’s place, and the organisation began micromanaging the party. Among other things, the BJP amended its constitution to let more RSS pracharaks be deployed at all levels of the party organisation.
Just two months before a general election in 2009, Mohan Bhagwat, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, succeeded Sudarshan as the sarsanghchalak as the RSS ushered in a generational change in leadership. The same project in the BJP, however, had foundered—Advani was still the party’s projected candidate for prime minister—and the RSS’s more direct involvement in its workings continued to fuel infighting. Relations between the party and its parent organisation were frosty.
The BJP won even fewer seats than it had in the disappointing 2004 election, and the Congress retained power. The crisis within the party deepened. In the eyes of the RSS, Advani, as an alternative power centre to the BJP president, was undermining the party’s functioning. His protégés—Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, collectively called the Delhi 4—were seen as part of the problem.
As the BJP faced a fresh choice of leadership, Bhagwat, in August 2009, gave a television interview where he expressed his displeasure at the party’s infighting and factionalism. Bhagwat’s interviewer, Arnab Goswami, turned the conversation to the matter of the next BJP chief. “It’s said there are four options before the BJP—Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi,” Goswami said. “Can there be a fifth, sixth or seventh?” Bhagwat, after saying that the choice was up to the party, stated, “The BJP should look beyond these four.”
By November, Gadkari was being spoken of as the RSS’s choice for the post. Dilip Deodhar, a Nagpur-based businessman with ties to RSS leaders, and a friend of Gadkari’s, told me that Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, “was the first choice, but he didn’t want to come to the centre before the 2012 assembly elections” in his state. It came down to Gadkari and Manohar Parrikar, a former chief minister of Goa—both of them Maharashtrian Brahmins.
Sudhir Pathak, formerly the editor of the RSS mouthpiece Tarun Bharat, told me that it was Advani who first suggested Gadkari’s elevation, which the RSS happily accepted. Deodhar said that “Advani thought Gadkari would be under his control as he had made him the state party president.” In December 2009, aged 52, Gadkari became the BJP’s youngest ever president.
JUST WEEKS LATER, the party forged a divisive alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. An assembly election in Jharkhand had left the JMM, the BJP and Congress each scrambling for partners to form a coalition government. By coming together, the JMM and BJP took control of the state, but many BJP leaders felt the association tainted the party given the serious allegations of corruption against the JMM’s leader, Shibu Soren. Media reports at the time pinned responsibility for the decision squarely on Gadkari, but it was not all his doing. As was later reported in The Caravan, the RSS was adamant about forestalling a Congress-led government, fearing that it would encourage Christian conversions. Gadkari had followed the organisation’s line despite opposition from within his party.
Pathak said there were some apprehensions about Gadkari, especially surrounding his lack of electoral merit and his proximity to some leaders of rival parties. “But Mohan-ji had seen him at work,” he added. “He is very free and frank. He is accessible to all. He has grown up here in Nagpur, and the RSS has seen him up close. He has his own style. Bhid jaata hai, aage peeche nahi dekhta” (He takes things head on, doesn’t hesitate). MG Vaidya, the RSS veteran, wrote in Tarun Bharat, “Gadkari is a good choice. He has the ability to build the organization.” (Vaidya, a Maharashtrian Brahmin himself, had also backed Bhagwat for the post of general secretary of the RSS back when Sudarshan was the sarsanghchalak. “There is a reluctance to admit to the fact,” Sujata Anandan wrote in Maharashtra Maximus, “but the top brass in the RSS is troubled by the takeover of the BJP by North Indians and non-Brahmins.”)
The BJP released a profile of its new president that portrayed him as a moderate and listed out his capabilities. It called him “an empathic communicator” who “enthralls lakhs of youth,” even as it stated that there was “not a word of politics in any of the speeches or any appeal to instigate passions.” Gadkari, with the appearance of a portly small-town trader, employed a casual, easy-going style not typically associated with a president of the BJP. At a press conference announcing his elevation, he was visibly happy, and went around touching the feet of senior party leaders and hugging them. He gave a pithy, unremarkable speech that only exposed his poor oratory in Hindi, the language of currency in Delhi—an ominous sign. “I had never seen night in Delhi in the last five years,” he said, pitching himself as an outsider. “I used to come in the morning and leave by evening. For the first time, I will be staying the night today.” He ended the speech with a pledge to the party’s leaders and cadre: “I would like to promise that I will not do anything that might make you hang your heads in shame.”
“He was the first BJP president to wear shirt and trousers,” Pathak told me. “That is what the common man wears. He wanted to be in sync with them. The party was going towards the neo-rich at that time.”
Gadkari’s organisational style was on display at a BJP conclave in February 2010 in Indore, where all leaders and delegates were accommodated in tents. Pathak explained the significance of the change. “During the Jana Sangh days, the leaders used to stay at the party office or with cadres,” he said, but a “five-star-hotel culture had cut them off from people.” Gadkari insisted on a singing session, and obliged a request for him to sing by breaking into an old Hindi film song, completely out of tune. “Till then, most people in India had no clue as to who he was and what he looked like,” Outlook wrote at the time. “But the song … appears to have done the trick for him. He comes through as a disarmingly simple small town boy with few pretensions.”
“The problems in the party are not because of grassroots workers but because of those who had benefited much,” Gadkari said in a speech to those gathered. He also spoke against sycophancy, and said that if senior leaders wanted respect they had to earn it.
Later in 2010, Gadkari held a wedding in Nagpur for his elder son that contradicted his image of unpretentiousness, and raised eyebrows within the BJP and the RSS. The city had never seen an event of its grandeur and scale. Before the wedding, the Press Trust of India reported, “BJP in-charges of all 136 wards in Nagpur have been asked to distribute at least 1,000 invitation cards in each ward. Nearly 1.36 lakh invitation cards have been sent to people in Nagpur alone. Remaining 76,000 cards were sent to invitees in cities other than Nagpur.” (Gadkari held another giant wedding in 2012, for his younger son—the ruling prime minister, the Congress’s Manmohan Singh, attended a reception in Delhi—and one more in 2016, for his daughter.)
In August 2011, Gadkari told a gathering of BJP leaders from Uttar Pradesh that he was appointing Sanjay Joshi, a revered figure within the RSS, the party’s coordinator for an assembly election then some eight months away. Joshi, a bitter rival of Narendra Modi, had been a prominent member of the BJP until he was forced out in 2005, and he was now reinstated to the party’s national executive. Gadkari had waded deep into the two men’s rivalry, on the side of the RSS. Gadkari reportedly saw no need for Modi to campaign in Uttar Pradesh. This was not a universally popular position. Nor was the induction into the BJP of four leaders from the Bahujan Samaj Party who were widely seen as corrupt.
More friction followed in March 2012, when Gadkari backed Anshuman Mishra, a London-based businessman, to take a vacant Rajya Sabha seat in place of SS Ahluwalia, a BJP veteran awaiting re-election into the upper house. Mishra, a close friend of Gadkari’s, was the party’s de facto treasurer through Gadkari’s tenure. Many BJP leaders protested, and the party eventually nominated Ahluwalia after voting for the seat was countermanded over alleged attempts to buy the election. Mishra, upset, hit out at BJP leaders. Gadkari had to step in to defend them, and eventually Mishra apologised. The fiasco exacted a lasting cost. “Arun Jaitley and other senior leaders didn’t take it too well for having lost their say in such important matters,” an associate of Gadkari’s told me. “Things went downhill from there for Gadkari.”
The Uttar Pradesh election took place in April and May 2012, and the BJP failed miserably. Gadkari’s standing in the party took another hit. Towards the end of May, Modi threatened to boycott a national meeting of the BJP in Mumbai and quit the party unless Sanjay Joshi was sacked from the executive. Writing at the time, the journalist Sheila Bhatt pointed out the caste dimension to the clash. “Modi has always found Joshi, a Brahmin from Maharashtra, a man of intrigues while Joshi finds Modi an absolute autocrat unsuitable to run a democratic political party,” she wrote. “Joshi and Gadkari hail from Nagpur and are Brahmins. As Atal Bihari Vajpayee once used former minister Haren Pandya against him, Modi sees Gadkari using Joshi in the same role. Modi, an OBC”—from the Other Backward Classes—“is fighting back against the so-called Vajpayeeish Brahminical qualities of Joshi and even the RSS leadership.”
Gadkari had to give in, and Joshi resigned. As reported in The Telegraph, “By forcing Gadkari and, by implication, the RSS to buy peace with him, Modi has underscored his pre-eminence among party chief ministers and seems to have secured for himself a place at the high table.”
Among the things discussed at the Mumbai gathering was a second term for Gadkari, which the RSS insisted on. As part of the peace, Modi endorsed the notion. In September 2012, the BJP constitution was amended to allow a president to be re-elected.
BY THE TIME OF THE AMENDMENT, however, the floodgates of crisis had opened for Gadkari.
In September 2012, the anti-corruption activist Anjali Damania alleged that Gadkari had told her that he did not want to do anything about an irrigation scam linked to the NCP leader Ajit Pawar, a nephew of Sharad Pawar, because he and Ajit took care of each other’s interests. The next month, Arvind Kejriwal, then an activist heading an anti-corruption movement, alleged that the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra had handed some 100 acres of agricultural land it had ostensibly acquired for a dam to businesses connected to Gadkari. “Gadkari is not a politician,” Kejriwal told the media. “He is using BJP to increase his business interests. Now the party has also amended its Constitution to give him a second term as president.” Even as the BJP stood by Gadkari—Jaitley and Swaraj held a press conference to dismiss the allegations—the high-profile lawyer and party leader Ram Jethmalani called on Gadkari to quit. (Jethmalani was forced out of the BJP over this.)
Attention locked firmly on the Purti Group—a conglomerate worth Rs 300 crore, or around $55 million, at the time—whose main asset was a sugar production facility in Vidarbha, a region dominated by cotton and paddy cultivation. The facility included a power station, a distillery and an ethanol production unit, collectively worth dozens of crores of rupees. The capital used to found Purti, in 2000, had come mostly from cooperative banks and other institutional investors, and had been routed through intermediary companies that took shared ownership of the conglomerate. These were now found to be mostly defunct, with no revenues—a classic sign of shell companies—and the addresses registered for them mostly false. Gadkari’s driver was listed as a director in five of the companies. Purti’s managing director was Sudhir W Dive, a former bureaucrat who was Gadkari’s personal secretary during his time as minister and followed the politician out of the government.
In March 2010, the company Global Safety Vision, owned by the businessman Dattatray Pandurang Mhaiskar and with paid-up capital of merely Rs 36,000, gave a low-interest loan of Rs 164 crore to a Purti Group subsidiary, Purti Sugar and Power Limited. Mhaiskar was the promoter of Ideal Road Builders, which had implemented numerous build-operate-transfer projects when Gadkari was the minister of public works. Sharad Pawar, as of March 2011, held a thousand shares in Mhaiskar’s company.
Gadkari appeared on television and tried to brazen it out, saying he had done nothing wrong and was open to any kind of inquiry. But the damage was done. Sucheta Dalal, who had earlier applauded Gadkari for his achievements at the public-works ministry, published a scathing article on Gadkari’s collusion with rival parties. “As an opposition leader who transformed Maharashtra’s infrastructure, he ought to have been a powerful watchdog,” she wrote. “After Sharad Pawar took control of the ministry under the Congress-NCP coalition, he quickly privatised the toll-collection and maintenance contract for MPE”—the Mumbai-Pune Expressway—“which was bagged by the unknown Mhaiskars of Ideal Road Builders (IRB). It was imperative for IRB to co-opt Mr Gadkari and ensure his silence, since the original project itself was drastically modified and the escalation in toll was structured to ensure massive profits. IRB was soon bagging toll contracts all over Maharashtra. It was even making plans to sell equity in IRB to an Australian company and had come up with an expensive plan to change MPE’s alignment at a massive Rs 3,000+ crore.”
Dalal wrote of how she ran into Gadkari in Mumbai and “asked him about his silence on what I thought was the destruction of MPE. He seemed very surprised when I told him about IRB’s divestment plans. Strangely, the very next morning, chairman Mhaiskar of IRB was on the phone line wanting to explain things to me. That was my first indicator of how nicely Mr Gadkari had been co-opted.”
Dilip Deodhar, the RSS ideologue, told me that when Gadkari was about to become the BJP president Sharad Pawar told him to cut all ties with Purti, but Gadkari did not follow the advice fully. Ganesh Kanate, a former journalist who covered the Purti story, said, “Gadkari is inspired by Pawar’s model, but the important difference is that Pawar never gets openly associated with any of that. You can’t link him to his businesses. He knows how to maintain distance, but Gadkari does not.”
Amid the scandal, the RSS assigned S Gurumurthy, a veteran of the group as well as a chartered accountant, to examine Purti’s records. Gurumurthy declared there had been no malfeasance.
MG Vaidya published a blog post at the peak of the Purti controversy blaming Modi for it. “The roots of the campaign against Nitin Gadkari have to be in Gujarat because when Ram Jethmalani demanded Gadkari’s resignation, he also demanded that Narendra Modi be made the prime ministerial candidate of the party,” Vaidya wrote. “Narendra Modi might have felt that Gadkari as the BJP president will hamper his chances of becoming the Prime Minister. He is using Jethmalani to fulfil his plans.” Gujarat was then approaching an election, but Modi had thus far resisted any visit to the state by Gadkari. The BJP president went to Gujarat soon after Vaidya’s blog post.
Ganesh Kanate, who was with the channel NewsX in Mumbai at the time, told me that “three people got the documents regarding the Purti Group, and I was one among them.” In Delhi, “Jehangir Pocha, my editor, his wife Ranjana Jaitley, the niece of Arun Jaitley, and I, met Arun Jaitley at a five-star hotel where I was given the papers. I studied them, and they were genuine. Then I broke that story.” Looking back, Kanate—who is from Nagpur, and considers Gadkari a friend—thought that “we were used at the time. There has been no conclusive result of those allegations. It would not be raised again till it’s needed.”
Support for Gadkari inside the BJP and RSS suffered—although Bhagwat and Vaidya lobbied in his favour. Still, as late as on 22 January 2013, his re-election as party president apparently remained on the cards. That afternoon, as tax officials searched various offices related to Purti in Mumbai, the BJP issued a statement that read, “Coming as it does on the eve of his re-election as BJP President for a second term, the IT department’s action smacks of the ruling UPA’s nefarious designs to create confusion in the BJP ranks.” But, that same day, LK Advani and Bhaiyyaji Joshi, the RSS’s general secretary, met with Gadkari in Mumbai to ask him to resign. Less than an hour after it was first released, the BJP’s statement was amended and re-issued, this time without the reference to Gadkari’s re-election. Gadkari resigned that night, and proposed as his successor the RSS’s preferred replacement, Rajnath Singh.
Gadkari’s attempt to impose his will on the BJP upset the established balance of power between the RSS and the party leadership, headed by Advani. “There was a clash between the RSS and Advani,” Deodhar told me. “Everybody in Delhi was with Advani. As a result, his entire presidentship became a crisis.”
“The arrival of Modi on the scene … wrecked the RSS’s plans for Gadkari—to promote him as the leader of the opposition nationally and as a prime ministerial candidate eventually,” Anandan wrote in Maharashtra Maximus. There were signs that such a scheme was afoot as far back as in 2011, when The Hindu reported, “Mr. Gadkari has denied that he has prime ministerial ambitions, but there are several signs that he could be preparing to offer himself as a candidate to a divided party. Among other things, he has undergone a weight-control surgery, made efforts to appear more telegenic and started nursing potential Lok Sabha constituencies in Wardha and Nagpur.”
Now, the RSS’s best-laid plans lay in disarray. Gadkari, slighted and bested, retreated to Nagpur, and started preparing for a tilt at the Lok Sabha.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER ARRIVING BACKIN NAGPUR after his resignation, Gadkari addressed his supporters near the city’s airport. He said he knew the officials who were part of the “conspiracy” against him and had carried out the raids. “The Congress is a sinking ship,” he warned them. “When it’s the turn of our government, no Chidambaram or Sonia Gandhi”—respectively, the finance minister and the president of the Congress at the time—“will come to your rescue.” As the BJP president, he said, “I had to follow some discipline, but I am a free man now. I challenge the Congress party, fight as much as you want.”
It had long been decided that Gadkari would contest the Lok Sabha seat from Nagpur for the BJP. This was a daunting proposition—Gadkari would be facing his first popular election in 29 years, and the BJP had held the seat only once before, after a Congress leader switched over to the party. Nagpur’s Dalit, Muslim and OBC voters—who form the majority of the local electorate—traditionally voted for the Congress and other parties. The same pattern held throughout Vidarbha.
But Gadkari had been laying the ground for his electoral gambit. Gajanan Nimdeo, the editor of Tarun Bharat, told me that after Gadkari became the party president, “he got cars for all the BJP district presidents in Vidarbha” to strengthen the local organisation. “The contractors who benefitted from him and whose work he has done, he got them to give those cars.” To add to such bonuses, Gadkari cultivated vote banks that had historically eluded the BJP, and undercut his competition, whether from outside the BJP or within it.
Gadkari’s ruthlessness might have cost the party dear. A journalist with a national daily in Nagpur told me that the BJP had a good chance of winning the Nagpur seat in the 2009 general election, but failed to—because its candidate, Banwarilal Purohit, was a rival of Gadkari. “In 2009, when he became the BJP president, in a press conference we asked him how he could get there in such a short time,” the journalist said. “He asked the video journalists to step out and gave us two reasons: ‘One, never allow your competition to grow. Two, forget about people.’” But in dealing with potential challengers Gadkari had helped the BJP too, by co-opting leaders from rival parties. “All the prominent families leading the Congress and the NCP in Vidarbha at one point are now part of the BJP,” Gadkari’s confidant Anil Sole said. Datta Meghe, formerly of the Congress and the NCP, is now in the BJP along with his sons, one of whom is in the Maharashtra assembly. Ashish Deshmukh, son of the long-time Congress leader Ranjeet Deshmukh, also represents the BJP in the state assembly.
“Gadkari contributed to the loss of my father in 1999 Lok Sabha elections,” Praful Patil, the son of the former BJP leader Vinod Gudadhe Patil, told me. Patil won the BJP its first assembly seat from Nagpur in 1990, and retained it in 1995. As an OBC leader, he began a trend of OBC voters gradually shifting to the BJP in the city. Gadkari, according to Praful, never got along with him. “The party was like his house, and it was the Sangh’s,” he said. “We were like tenants. When we realised we were living in a rented house we left.” Vinod Patil eventually quit the BJP, and Praful joined the Congress. Gadkari, he said, “learnt his politics from the RSS.”
Praful maintained that OBC leaders were not allowed to settle in the BJP. “They got the OBC votes through a leader and sidelined the leader for next elections,” he said. “Then they brought in the second aspirant in his place.” Patil’s seat was taken by Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin. “They replaced the leaders but the votes stayed.”
As part of his pitch for Muslim votes, in 2013, Gadkari backed a Muslim woman, Jaitunbi Ashfaq Patel, to become Nagpur’s deputy mayor. As Modi, the BJP’s projected prime ministerial candidate, criss-crossed the country, “Nitin deliberately kept Modi away,” Anandan told me. “Modi campaigned in Wardha, south of Nagpur, in Amaravati, north of Nagpur, and in Bhandara, east of Nagpur. But he didn’t come to Nagpur.” Gadkari did not want his polarising presence. And, just as importantly, he did not want Modi to take any credit for a victory in Nagpur.
Gadkari also aggressively wooed Dalit leaders. Milind Mane, a prominent Ambedkarite with the Republican Party of India, switched to the BJP, and is now a state legislator from Nagpur.
“Nitin Gadkari brought bahujans to the BJP,” Gajanan Nimdeo, the editor of Tarun Bharat, told me. According to Pandharipande, Gadkari “transformed the party from an urban, Brahminical party to a mass-based party,” though he acknowledged that when it came to drawing in OBC voters “it was not he alone who did it, and he was not the first to do it.”
To add to all of this, Gadkari endorsed the demand to make Vidarbha a separate state—a position he has since retreated from. When the election came, he won handsomely, with a lead approaching 300,000 votes.
THE WIN AFFIRMED GADKARI'S POSITION as the big cat of his territory. For years, no other person in Nagpur had wielded as much influence as he had. This was evident in, among other things, a string of local controversies connected to him, which, no matter how large, failed to dent his stature. Almost everyone I spoke to in Nagpur skirted around these. Instead, I was told of such things as Gadkari’s reputation for being accessible and keeping an open house. I realised that much of the city takes pride in what Gadkari has been able to do, whatever his methods, and when it comes to his misadventures the locals pull punches.
In 2008, a commission appointed to investigate the allotment of surplus land under the Urban Land Ceiling Act in Maharashtra between 1990 and 2006 reported that established rules had been ignored to hand numerous plots over to institutions tied to politicians from across party lines. The commission stated, “Maximum number of allotments have been recommended by Shri Nitin Gadkari, MLA/Minister numbering 16 approximately.”
Gadkari is known to be close to many of Nagpur’s top businessmen. In 2010, the name of Ajay Sancheti, an entrepreneur with interests in infrastructure and links to the RSS, and since 2012 a member of the Rajya Sabha with the BJP, came up in connection to the manoeuvring behind the JMM-BJP government in Jharkhand. Sancheti came up again in connection to the Coalgate scandal, which involved the government’s allocation of captive coal blocks to particular firms without competitive bidding, at massive loss to the public exchequer. After the scandal broke in 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General of Chhattisgarh, then ruled by the BJP, reported that SMS Infrastructure, owned by Sancheti, had entered into a mining deal that entailed losses of over Rs 1,000 crore for the state government. As the ties between Gadkari and Sancheti came in for public criticism, the best defence the BJP could muster—even as it castigated the Congress-led government at the centre over coal-block allocations—was to point out that at the time the controversial mining deal was signed Gadkari had yet to become the party’s president, and Sancheti had not yet been elected into the Rajya Sabha.
In 2012, Arun Lakhani, another Nagpur businessman with infrastructure interests, was embroiled in the scandal surrounding the Purti Group. Lakhani, it emerged, was one of the conglomerate’s promoters. In 2012, a firm named Orange City Water won a contract with the Nagpur Municipal Corporation, under BJP control, to take over the city’s water-supply system—this despite the failure of a pilot privatisation project, and protests by municipal workers. OCW is a joint venture of Vishwaraj Environment, owned by Lakhani, and the French company Veolia. Gadkari had promoted the idea of this privatisation. The RSS had earlier passed a resolution opposing it, but said nothing after the contract was awarded.
Pandharipande, now a social communication consultant for OCW, told me, “The RSS said, ‘Are you creating an East India Company? Why are you getting a foreign company? You are privatising water? Making it a commodity?’” He nonchalantly admitted that Arun Lakhani “also comes from the RSS stock,” and that “he was told in advance that he would have to tie up with whoever gets the tender.”
Since the privatisation, OCW has drawn complaints of inflating bills, restricting water supplies and delivering contaminated water. But officials, and also most opposition leaders in Nagpur, have been silent. “The prominent faces of Congress, can they fight against Gadkari?” Praful Patil told me. “They can’t. Only new leadership can do it.”
According to a 2016 report on the independent news site Truthout, “The rationale for privatization was to overcome losses for the Urban Local Body; in 2016, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation will shell out 1.8 billion rupees. There is also a 2 billion-rupee scam in meters. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling repeatedly for ‘made in India’ technology, Orange City Water Private Limited buys and fits euro-norms compliant meters and sells them at twice the purchasing cost to the Urban Local Body.”
The media baron Subhash Chandra, in an autobiography published in 2016, wrote, “we were introduced to infrastructure entrepreneur Arun Lakhani by my long-time friend Nitin Gadkari, now the Union minister of road transport, in 2006. Lakhani had won a concession for building highways in Maharashtra under the public-private partnership model (PPP) … we teamed up with Lakhani and invested in his company. Our journey in infrastructure sector began with this venture.”
The Nagpur Municipal Corporation also brought private companies in to manage the city’s garbage collection, bus services and power distribution. In all three sectors, major allegations of corruption and mismanagement followed. The Times of India reported scams in garbage collection worth Rs 10 crore in 2015 and Rs 25 crore in 2017, but the company responsible, Kanak Resources Management, continued to operate and has received a contract extension until 2019. In 2011, there were allegations of a scam worth Rs 40 crore regarding the allocation of contracts and the purchase of buses for the city’s public transportation. This did not lead to any action. The inquiry that followed was headed by Anil Sole, Gadkari’s long-time associate. The firm put in charge of bus services, Vansh Nimay Infraprojects, finally had its contract terminated in 2017, after the municipal corporation charged it with defaulting on dues of Rs 132 crore.
In early 2013, amid much bonhomie, Gadkari joined the Congress leader Narayan Rane, then the industries minister of Maharashtra, to inaugurate a colony of what he said were perhaps the cheapest homes in the country and even the world, with space priced at just Rs 400 per square foot. Gadkari had been the moving force behind it—he organised some factory workers with RSS affiliations into a cooperative housing society, then successfully lobbied Rane to allot a reported 20 acres of industrial land to the society at a highly discounted rate. An earlier attempt to secure the same land for a private company in which Gadkari was the director had failed. He also convinced two state-assembly members and four members of parliament—Piyush Goyal, Ajay Sancheti, Prakash Javadekar and Prakash Jadhav—to contribute Rs 2.5 crore of discretionary development funding, which is only meant to be used for public projects. Gadkari threw in some development funds of his own as well.
The colony was named after the Hindutva icon VD Savarkar. But its residents were soon pouring forth complaints, which they also took to the courts.
The price for each house was announced to be Rs 230,000, and residents were given home loans from the Nagpur Nagarik Cooperative Bank, controlled by the RSS. After multiple hikes, the price per house touched Rs 625,000. The houses turned out to be very poorly built. It also came to light that numerous official permissions had not been received, and money collected for taxes and utilities was never paid.
“Gadkari always took credit for this and claimed that he made affordable houses for the poor, but he only exploited the poor,” Pankaj Thakre, a resident and litigant, told me when I visited Veer Savarkar Nagar, on the outskirts of Nagpur. On a tour of the colony, the residents showed me crumbling roofs and walls. “Nobody would’ve protested if they had done a good job with all the extra money they took,” Thakre said. “It has been built without any planning at all. There are no basic facilities like water and drainage systems. Nobody—the police, the collector or the media—took our complaints seriously.” He added that Sudhir Deulgaonkar, Gadkari’s personal assistant and now an officer on special duty in the road ministry, had approached the residents to propose a settlement, but they had chosen to fight on in court.
Thakre told me that in 2008, when the future residents of the colony were putting down payments for their plots, he and a few other nervous representatives visited Gadkari, seeking assurances that they would not be cheated. “He said ‘I have eight crore rupees of turnover in a month. What will I do with the small society?’” At the time this had seemed reassuring.
Adding to the shadows hanging over Gadkari’s past are two strange deaths. The first came in May 2009. The body of a seven-year-old girl, Yogita Thakre, was found in a car at the politician’s home—known in Nagpur as Gadkariwada—while he was on a trip outside the city. The girl’s mother was then working as a domestic helper in the vicinity. Kiran Thakre, Yogita’s elder sister, told me that the police initially resisted filing a First Information Report, and later registered a case of accidental death, contending that Yogita succumbed to disease. The family approached the courts, and a year later the Bombay High Court ordered an investigation by the Crime Investigation Department, after concluding that the police had conducted a sloppy investigation. The CID took a year to report that the death had been accidental. Unconvinced, the court ordered that the investigation continue. The CID filed another report in 2013, which the court rejected because of discrepancies. The case remains in the courts, and the investigation has not moved any further.
“During the first 14 days many rowdies came to our house around midnight and told us to take money and withdraw the case,” Kiran said. “I used to get threatening phone calls from unknown numbers. … I used to get phone calls just before the court hearing.” When the family asked for protection, the police filed a letter stating that the family’s neighbours denied that there had been any intimidating visitors. Kiran said her mother was dismissed from work and became mentally unstable; her father has taken to drink. The family was thrown out of its rented accommodation. Kiran continues to pursue the case. In 2017, she also contested a municipal election as an independent candidate.
The second death occurred in 2004. Prakash Deshpande, a personal assistant to Gadkari, was found dead on a railway platform while on his way to Nagpur from Mumbai. The speculation, according to the Indian Express, was that Deshpande was carrying “large amounts of party funds.” Nothing more has yet come to light on the matter. When I reached out to Deshpande’s family, they declined to meet.
Gadkari’s office did not respond to my interview request.
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 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 the NCP’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. With Gopinath Munde gone—he died in a road accident in June 2014, shortly after becoming a minister in Modi’s cabinet—Gadkari was now 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, Mahajan and Munde propped up Devendra Fadnavis,” Anandan said. “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—“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 83,000 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. The Hindustan Times reported, “Under the first phase to be completed by 2022, 34,800 km of highways will be built. This will include 24,800 km of the ambitious Bharat Mala programme … announced two years ago … Of the 34,800 km stretch, 10,000 km are part of the ongoing National Highway Development Project (NHDP), which was started in 1998 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM.”
“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,” Kanate, the 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 83,000-plus-kilometre 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'S TIME IN DELHI has been punctuated with controversies of a kind disturbingly familiar across his career. His promotion of ethanol-fuelled buses—he has also proposed raising the percentage of ethanol blended into automotive fuel—has raised questions of a conflict of interest. The Purti Group dramatically increased its ethanol production after he joined the cabinet. In 2016, the conglomerate was amalgamated into an entity called Manas Agro Industries, which has received a Rs 1,034-crore loan from a consortium of cooperative and public-sector banks led by the state-run IDBI Bank. One of Gadkari’s sons is a director of the company, and the other a promoter.
Documents leaked in early 2015 by a whistle-blower from the Essar Group, which revealed extensive efforts to curry favour in power circles, showed that in July 2013 Gadkari and his family had spent two nights on the French Riviera in an Essar-owned luxury yacht. “This trip was a private affair and I do have individual relations with people independent of my public life,” Gadkari told the media. He said that, in Mumbai, he had been a friend and neighbour for years to the Ruias, who head the corporation, “and I have not dealt with their cases in any capacity or extended any favours to them. Where is the conflict of interest?” A company of the Purti Group launched a joint venture with Essar in 2013 to set up a network of petrol stations.
In January 2016, IRB Infrastructure Developers—a firm of the Mhaiskar family, Gadkari’s old friends from his association with Ideal Road Builders—received a contract worth Rs 10,050 crore to build a tunnel at Zojila pass, connecting Kashmir and Ladakh. The deal was cancelled after the opposition raised allegations of corruption. After a round of bidding, in 2017 the contract went to another firm, IL&FS Transportation, which proposed to build the tunnel for just under half the sum.
In May 2017, officials of the National Highways Authority of India were charged in relation to an alleged scam worth Rs 240 crore in the acquisition of land for National Highway 74, in Uttarakhand. Gadkari wrote a letter to the state’s chief minister to voice his concern that the “actions by the government of Uttarakhand are bound to have adverse impact on the morale of the officers and would impede implementation of projects.” He added a barely veiled threat that his ministry “would have to re-examine the usefulness for taking up more projects in the state.” The state government has handed the case to a special investigative team, which is yet to submit any findings.
Later in the year, The Hindu reported that the Indian Federation of Green Energy, a company run by Vaibhav Dange, Gadkari’s private secretary, had been raising funds and organising events for departments and units under the road ministry. Dange responded that he had joined the ministry after resigning from the company. Gadkari continues to be listed as a patron of the company on its website, and Suresh Prabhu, the current minister of commerce as well as of civil aviation, as its honorary chairman.
With any corruption on Gadkari’s watch now liable to tarnish Modi’s reputation as well, the allegations against the road minister have not received the kind of coverage given to the scandal over the Purti Group. In fact, when a 2015 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General tied Purti to “various irregularities in implementation of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s subsidy schemes,” Arun Jaitley came out in Gadkari’s defence. The opposition raised the matter in parliament, and Gadkari denied any wrongdoing. After that, a top Congress leader told me, “Nobody persisted. Gadkari is seen as a rival to Modi, and hence deserving of our tacit support.”
Gadkari’s supporters are not concerned by any of this. “Where are those cases now?” an RSS leader known to be close to Gadkari told me. “How are they any different from the allegations against Amit Shah’s son?” (The news website The Wire reported in 2017 that a company owned by Jay Amit Shah had seen its value multiply 16,000-fold inside the first year of the Modi government.) The RSS leader said the Purti Group scandal was mainly the work of two broadcasters, the Times Group and NDTV, “who went after him. It was all a conspiracy.” He added that the income-tax official “who oversaw the raids against Gadkari has been amply rewarded.” (The official, KV Chowdary, was appointed the Central Vigilance Commissioner in June 2015, when he was only four months from retirement. He was the first officer from outside the Indian Administrative Service to hold the post.)
A close associate of Gadkari’s in Mumbai told me the politician learnt from the Purti fiasco, and now covers his tracks well.
"GADKARI OPENLY PROMOTES BUSINESS," 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.” Deodhar 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”—the 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, the 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.”
Last month, 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 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. Modi-ji 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 to 700,000 votes.
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.