Mint ST - - LONG STORY - Ab­hi­ram Ghadyal­patil ab­hi­[email protected] NAG­PUR/MUM­BAI

Gad­kari has no mass base and the RSS is firmly be­hind Modi-shah. Why then is the Nag­pur busi­ness­man-politi­cian play­ing his card?

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.”


One ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion is the seem­ingly-end­less se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial state­ments Gad­kari keeps mak­ing (see box). 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 busi­ness­man­politi­cian. 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.


Af­ter the Congress vic­tory in three state polls and the Sa­ma­jwadi Par­tyBahu­jan 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.”


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 late80s, 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.


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.

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