Nagpur/Mumbai: Right from his early days in politics, Nitin Jairam Gadkari has defined the political culture in his home town Nagpur by deploying a local metaphor. It’s the railway bridge in Nagpur which not only physically divides the city but cuts it into two distinct social and cultural halves. Across the bridge is New Nagpur, where a metro is being built, where the middle class and elite stay. Gadkari lives on the other side, in the old town, in an area called Mahal which means palace. People here, according to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongman, are a little more laid-back, earthy, and uninhibited.
The Mahal area is also that part of Nagpur where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) held its first shakha (congregation of swyamsevaks or volunteers) in 1925 and which set off a movement that propelled Narendra Modi, a swayamsevak, to the Prime Minister’s office in May 2014. Close by is the larger RSS campus at Reshimbagh, where former president of India Pranab Mukherjee was the chief guest at the RSS event in June. It’s no secret that Gadkari’s friendship with Mukherjee helped fructify the lifetime Congressman’s RSS outing.
In April 2014, the old town and the new city both voted their hearts out to help Gadkari register a landslide victory by a margin of nearly 285,000. It was the first direct election Gadkari had won in his four-decade-long career. And unlike many of those 282 constituencies from where the BJP had won in 2014, he won it without a Narendra Modi rally.
Five years later, there’s another buzz: is Gadkari saheb or Nitinji or Nitin bhau, as he is addressed, going to be the prime minister of India post the 2019 elections? Each politically-aware person one meets in Nagpur asks this question upfront. “Ban raha kya ye PM (is he going to be the prime minister)?" asks a local Congress leader who has sought the party’s ticket against Gadkari in the upcoming elections. A Nagpur-based entrepreneur and RSS functionary in his early 40s, who did not want to be named so as to “not offend Nitinji", confirmed that: “There is a lot of speculation here."
The Gadkari talkathon
One obvious explanation is the seemingly-endless series of controversial statements Gadkari keeps making. Despite his clarifications and claim that “some opposition parties and a section of the media" are twisting his statements to create a wedge between him and the party leadership, Gadkari has said enough to raise suspicion over his intentions and timing (which is why the moniker “Gadaarkari" [traitor] is doing the rounds in BJP circles). Adding fuel to the fire is the main opposition party, the Congress, joining the ring with party president Rahul Gandhi and former finance minister P. Chidambaram praising Gadkari. Former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi was the latest to join the fray, appreciating Gadkari’s work in Parliament.
Gadkari, currently the Union minister for road transport, highways, shipping, water resources, river development, and Ganga rejuvenation, declined to give an interview to Mint, saying, “I have stopped giving interviews because media has lost all credibility." He also added that the media continued to twist his statements, even though he had clarified his position a number of times.
But if he is neither eying the top job, nor is he taking potshots at the BJP leadership, why does then Gadkari keep saying things that put him in direct conflict with Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah? Sure, Gadkari, 62, has always been a blunt talker who has assiduously built the image of a no-nonsense businessman-politician. However, that still doesn’t fully explain how he has emerged as a leading protagonist in a likely post-poll political theatre.
Suhas Palshikar, veteran political scientist and chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics, thinks the “gossip" around Gadkari is normal but adds that it tells us more about the opposition than the BJP. “This is indicative of the absence of any strong anti-BJP narrative that the opposition can rely on," Palshikar says.
The larger point he makes is about the opposition’s need to depend on these intrigues within the BJP. “They (the opposition) hope intra-party dissent to do what they cannot themselves do. This is idle politics. Unless there is a condition where the BJP is reduced to under 190 seats, no internal dissent will happen within the BJP—for the time being," Palshikar adds.
The RSS factor
After the Congress victory in three state polls and the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh, most opinion polls now indicate a hung Parliament in the 2019 elections, though the BJP is likely to be the single largest party. It is this uncertainty that has created space for Gadkari, an alternative to Modi, say his friends and admirers in the RSS-BJP ecosystem as well as Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Most of all, Gadkari draws his strength from the perception that the RSS is backing its favourite protégé. However, many RSS functionaries and independent political analysts insist the RSS support to Gadkari is a myth. Yet, others from the RSS ecosystem feel that even though Gadkari knows that he is not the preferred candidate “as of now", he is playing along this narrative because he believes more in the “unpredictable nature and surprise element" in politics.
A member of the RSS national executive, who has known Gadkari since the 1980s, said the RSS leadership including Mohan Bhagwat was “totally unanimous and united in backing Modi in 2019 come what may".
“That RSS would prefer Nitin (Gadkari) over Modi in 2019 is a great myth media keeps writing about. The RSS and all RSS affiliates including the Vishva Hindu Parishad are totally behind Modi and would work hard to ensure he gets a second term. The entire Sangh Parivar now is on the same page on all issues that were contentious then, including the economy, Ram mandir, and Hindutva. We see the larger objective in making Modi the prime minister in 2019 and that is our position. There is no other candidate," this senior RSS functionary told Mint requesting anonymity.
He added that even Gadkari knows this. “Gadkari knows this yet he makes such statements that make you people believe otherwise. We can’t help it," he said. When asked why the RSS leadership did not restrain Gadkari, “That’s not our job," he replied. “If Nitin wanted to court RSS’s support, he would not have snapped ties with pracharaks like Muralidhar Rao and Ram Madhav who are now in the BJP. He has cut ties with the operational as well as cultural RSS ecosystem since 2012," informed this senior RSS functionary.
Akshay Mukul, author of Gita Press and the making of Hindu India, concurs: “I think the RSS considers Gadkari as their own, someone from Nagpur they are proud of. That said, I entirely agree that Gadkari will not have the support of the RSS. Give me one reason why the RSS will have any grievance with Modi and Shah? The last five years have been the best for the organization. Its coffers are overflowing and they have emerged as a power centre with disproportionate clout over the government."
The waiting game
Despite his stint as party president till 2012, Gadkari still lacks a national presence. What then gives fuel to Gadkari’s chances for the top job? Simply put, it’s the expansive ecosystem and support-base Gadkari has personally built over the years in the RSS, BJP, industry, agriculture, and even media. He hopes that this architecture of associations and alliances would come in handy post-elections if he is required to line up support.
Fact is, beyond Maharashtra in general, and Vidarbha in particular, Gadkari has no mass political base to call his own. In Maharashtra—which sends 48 members of Parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha, the second highest contingent after Uttar Pradesh—the Congress has nearly sealed a pre-poll alliance with the NCP whereas the BJP has not been able to bring the Shiv Sena on-board yet.
The Shiv Sena, BJP’s ally since the late-80s, has made no secret of its dislike of Modi. But it appears to love Gadkari. Earlier this month in an interview with Mint, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said his party would support Gadkari as the prime minister. “Gadkari is waiting in the wings because he knows the next elections are going to produce a hung Lok Sabha," Raut had said.
The Shiv Sena reasons that Gadkari is a Marathi politician, and that he would also be more accommodative of the allies.
In May 2018, Sharad Pawar was the chief guest at Gadkari’s birthday bash in Nagpur, a mega event that many in Nagpur including former Congress MP Vilas Muttemwar say was Gadkari’s first big attempt at self-promotion.
The Gadkari-Pawar friendship has a recent context. In 2014, the NCP had on its own offered to support the BJP in Maharashtra (the latter was a few seats short of majority) if Gadkari were to be made chief minister. But Devendra Fadnavis, a young politician from New Nagpur across the railway bridge, got Modi’s backing.
According to a senior NCP leader, “The NCP would obviously love Pawar saheb to be the prime minister but if it is not him, our second choice is Nitin. From the BJP, our first choice is Nitin even now," the NCP leader said requesting anonymity. But he refused to answer the question whether the NCP would switch over to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance if Gadkari were to emerge as the prime ministerial candidate. “That’s a long shot," he said.
Even if he doesn’t have a pan-India political base, commentator Palshikar sees merit in Gadkari’s style of leadership that he thinks could come in handy if a coalition situation arises. “Gadkari combines two different genres: ideologically, he represents the RSS but his style of building political networks is closer to the pluralistic characteristic of the Congress. Realizing that coalition politics still has a future, Gadkari would surely aim at being a leader of cross-party acceptability—something that might stand him in good stead in the future."
Despite his doer reputation, other analysts don’t give Gadkari a real chance. “Sangh has always been a house full of intrigues. Maybe, some within the RSS might think Gadkari is their dark horse. But I doubt he will pose a real challenge. Modi is unassailable as of now," said Akshay Mukul.
The business connection
Gadkari is a rare politician who is blunt about his association with big business. He does not shy away from calling himself a businessman-politician. In November last year, Anand Mahindra, executive chairman, Mahindra Group, hailed Gadkari as “Ethan Hunt" (the name of the Mission Impossible character played by Tom Cruise) of India for his role as India’s infrastructure minister.
That said, Gadkari’s business associations also cast a negative shadow on his career and cost him the second term as the BJP president he was set to get in 2012. Even in RSS-BJP circles, while he is praised for his networking skills and potential to raise resources, there is an uncomfortable sense about his business dealings.
In fact, controversies about his businesses have run cheek by jowl with compliments from the business lobby ever since he became PWD minister in the Maharashtra government in the mid 1990s. It is well known that he wasn’t particularly convinced about Dhirubhai Ambani’s bid to build the Mumbai-Pune expressway. And during his ministership (1995-1999), the Mumbai-based company IRB Infrastructure won many road contracts in Maharashtra.
In 2001, the IRB group allegedly invested ₹1.85 crore in Gadkari-promoted Purti Group and also allegedly gave an unsecured loan of ₹164 crore through dummy companies. Gadkari stepped down as BJP president when these allegations were made public. Gadkari denied the charges, as did IRB—and his supporters feel these were planted by the BJP’s “Delhi club".
As the Union minister for several meatier portfolios in the Modi cabinet, Gadkari appears to have delivered results without controversies. However, he shares an uneasy relationship with Modi and Shah.
Dilip Deodhar, his Nagpur-based friend and RSS analyst, says all the financial contracts that Gadkari’s various ministries issue are filtered by the Prime Minister’s Office. Gadkari’s deputy in the roads and transport ministry Mansukh Mandaviya, an MP from Gujarat, is seen to be Modi’s man.
In conclusion, Gadkari, as his many admirers say, is a believer in action, not karma. A former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad worker compares him to the late Pramod Mahajan.
Like Mahajan, Gadkari is not a mass leader. Mahajan was deft enough to play second fiddle to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when the latter was the prime minister and the unquestioned leader of the BJP. But given his defiant statements in public and in private, Gadkari hints he is not ready to wait and senses an early shot at the top job post-May 2019.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was asked about the speculation about Gadkari on 7 February, he said: “Gadkari does not have the scheming mindset and he is happy with his current position." In three months, after the mother of all elections, Bhagwat may have to face the Gadkari question again.