- Benami investments in his Purti group cost him a second term as BJP president
- There was much controversy over the mysterious death of a young girl in a car owned by him at his Nagpur residence
- His announcement on the lifting of a ban on e-rickshaws was, it’s alleged, meant to favour a company linked to his family
- Media reports say the Union transport minister’s Delhi residence was bugged and listening devices were found there
- An ethanol-fuelled bus donated by a Swedish company was found parked at a sugar factory owned by the minister
- Is being held responsible for reducing the wage component in schemes under NREGA, affecting five crore rural households
- The me-too moment—39 MLAs plugging him for Maharashtra CM’s post (see pix)
Even close friends of Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari are hard put to defend his scooter ride without a helmet in Nagpur. The ride was of course meant as a photo op, so perhaps the helmet would have defeated the effort. But the photograph went viral, inviting criticism and sarcasm. “This no-helmet ride has really been the worst hit so far for Nitinji. He needs to understand that as a public figure, especially as transport minister, he can’t flout rules and regulations. It’s not just about bad press but simply a bad idea, poor planning at his end,” admitted an old friend of his.
Now, Gadkari has been dogged by controversies, but insiders say he’s never been an embarrassment to the party or the government. Till now. The scooter ride followed close on the heels of an unusual show of muscle at his Nagpur home when on October 21, 39 of the 44 elected MLAs from Vidarbha region landed at his residence demanding that he take over as Maharashtra chief minister. Few in the BJP were willing to dismiss it as just an emotional outburst of loyal supporters. Party leaders in distant Delhi clearly saw the move as a “planned strategy” by Gadkari and his aide Sudhir Mungantiwar.
With both Gadkari and Fadnavis hailing from Vidarbha, speculation about a turf war had been rife for long. Differences between the two leaders had come to the fore last year during the election for the state BJP president. At the time, while Gadkari had supported Mungantiwar for the job, deceased leader Gopinath Munde had rooted for Fadnavis. This time, when by October 21 news of Fadnavis being the chosen one gained currency, sources say Gadkari decided to flex his muscles to convey his relevance in Maharashtra politics to PM Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah.
A BJP leader in Nagpur says, “While Nitinji knew that he wouldn’t be chosen for the top job in Maharashtra, it was important for him to tell Delhi that the overwhelming majority of MLAs from Vidarbha were with him. It was his way of saying that he could not be ignored when taking a decision on Maharashtra politics.”
A section of the BJP holds that neither Modi nor Fadnavis was responsible for keeping Gadkari out. It was the RSS which would not let him shift to Mumbai. When two days before the Vidarbha MLA drama took place, Gadkari was asked if he would be shifting to Mumbai, he told BJP parliamentary board members that he “wasn’t interested in going to Maharashtra”. The staunch Sanghi in Gadkari was only following plans laid out for him by the RSS. A senior pracharak in Nagpur told Outlook, “Despite what the media might say, the RSS needs Gadkari to stay in Delhi and work. We would not even consider his moving out from the Centre.” Why? “It’s 28 years of loyalty to the Sangh that the sarsanghchalak values in Gadkari,” the pracharak replied.
Sources confirm this. “If there is one man the RSS trusts completely in Delhi, it’s Nitin Gadkari.” He’s not just a minister. Although the Sangh has two of its representatives in Modi’s cabinet, Rajnath Singh being the other one, it is Gadkari that the Sangh will always bank on to push its agenda in the government, they held adding, “Rajnath cannot be expected to drive the RSS’s message to Modi when required. If the Sangh needs to pull up the government on some decision it will need Gadkari to do the job.” Those in the know explain that while it is important for the RSS to have Gadkari at the Centre, for the prime minister “Gadkari is a precious cabinet member”. An insider says, “Modi knows that if RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has to be convinced about discomforting decisions in defence, finance and labour ministries, then Gadkari is his go-to man.”
Insiders also point out that Modi needs Gadkari to strike a balance in the power equations in his cabinet. So far, even as Rajnath Singh presides over meetings in Modi’s absence, giving him a seemingly comfortable No. 2 position in the government, it is no secret that on Raisina Hill, Union minister for defence and finance Arun Jaitley is the second most powerful man. A senior leader confirmed this, “Obviously, when Modi wants to balance a bit of Arun Jaitley in running the government, he brings in Gadkari into meetings.” No wonder then, ahead of the winter session of Parliament, the PM will be huddled with Jaitley and Gadkari to clear major policy decisions.
But is Modi not concerned over the recurring embarrassments that Gadkari has been causing both the party and the government? “It’s embarrassing only if you want to take note of it,” says a senior minister. “As of today, the PM must do business with him. Nitin Gadkari is a former party president, has a proven track record of administrative excellence in Maharashtra as PWD minister and is the RSS’s man in the government,” he adds.
Besides, Gadkari lords over the highest budgetary allocation in Modi’s government as minister in charge of several key ministries. Add to it the fact that as minister Gadkari is not just responsible for Modi’s flagship policies like Swachch Bharat and Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojna (SAGY), but is also the man who as transport and infrastructure minister will double up as the PM’s delivery boy on his development agenda.
What also adds heft to Gadkari’s political capital is the fact that most of Modi’s cabinet and party office-bearers are people that Gadkari as party president had nurtured and brought to the forefront. The list of beneficiaries runs long: Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, J.P. Nadda, Bhupendra Yadav, Dharmendra Pradhan, Murlidhar Rao and most of the state unit presidents.
A senior RSS leader told Outlook, “He may look like a lightweight but don’t forget Gadkari was the first non-Delhi leader in the BJP to establish himself in the national capital. Five years back when this dedicated Brahmin swayamsevak arrived in New Delhi to “set the BJP’s house in order”, Nitin Jairam Gadkari was an unknown entity. He broke the Delhi durbar when he became president. And that actually paved the way for Modiji, another outsider, to be BJP’s unopposed leader and prime minister today.” No wonder the RSS is sure that their trusted swayamsevak in Delhi’s power corridors will carry the day for them.
By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai