Road warrior

Nitin Gadkari, a best-performing minister, had a time when he wanted to quit politics

18-nitin-gadkari The pathbreaker: Nitin Gadkari | Arvind Jain

Nitin Gadkari is a great raconteur. He has two favourite stories. There is the old one of how he became the “flyover man” of Maharashtra; Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray apparently called him Nitin “Roadkari”. The other is of how he converted the BJP’s defeat in the 2017 Goa elections into a win, by installing a government between midnight and early morning.

But, there are many stories about him that the Union minister skips, as he passionately talks about the highway he is building or the waterways that will reduce travelling cost to about 10 paise a kilometre.

In 2014, when he was given the road transport and highways portfolio, projects worth Rs 3 lakh crore were stuck. Now, 99 per cent has been resolved and about 60 per cent has been completed. And, new road construction contracts worth Rs 5 lakh crore have been awarded. When he took charge, they were building 3km of roads a day; now it is 27km.

“It is simply because of his obsession and accessibility,” says an officer in the transport ministry. “He talks positive, and talks only solutions.”

Such is Gadkari’s image that many—from corporates to party leaders—knock on his door at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur to get their issues sorted. And, he is the go-to man for the Union government. In 2015, when the party was yet to give up on the Land Acquisition Bill, it got Gadkari to make a last-ditch effort. It also asked him to defend the party after the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union minister Arun Jaitley, Gadkari also waxes eloquent. But, nobody calls him pompous. Even some of his cabinet colleagues grudgingly say he is among the best-performing ministers.

For Gadkari, everything is a project, to be accomplished the way projects are—through brainstorming, timelines and meetings. Recently, one such meeting, a two-day event, was held at The Leela Goa. It was a state-wise review of about 827 national highway projects. And, at the end, when he praised the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments for their work, his fairness won him friends across the political divide.

One project engineer summed it up: “Because the highways minister was holding the meeting, 80 per cent of the problems were solved even before the meeting, by higher-ups.”

It is this passion for work that catapulted him to where he is. Those who work with Gadkari say he is obsessed with what is on hand, and anyone involved in those projects has unqualified access to him. In fact, the transport ministry is full of stories of how he broke the cement and construction cartels, resolved disputes, and came up with innovative funding ideas.

In Modi’s regime, most BJP leaders prefer to keep mum. Gadkari is among the few unafraid to speak their mind, be it in favour of bringing petroleum and realty under the goods and services tax, or growing corn to produce ethanol, which would reduce import of petroleum.

There are whispers that the RSS may handpick him for the prime minister’s job if the BJP were to form government again with fewer numbers. “There is no possibility,” he told THE WEEK. “I don’t want to become prime minister. I am not on the waiting list. I don’t dream of it either. I don’t have the stature.”

In 2009, when the BJP announced that he would succeed Rajnath Singh as party president, Gadkari was hardly known outside Maharashtra. But, he began revamping the party and was soon primed for a second term as president. However, that was when the income tax department’s investigations into his Purti Group were seen as tarnishing the BJP’s image. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he describes the Purti investigation as the most painful point in his life, when he almost quit politics and returned to agriculture.

The RSS and the BJP have not just stood by him then and thereafter, but the relationship between him and Nagpur has only got closer.

More recently, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh alleged that a company floated by Gadkari’s private secretary, Vaibhav Dange, had received funds from his ministries. But, not a single charge stuck.

Because of his nature, Gadkari has friends across the political divide. And, he bonds with them over food. A longtime staffer recalls how, once, former Congress legislator Narayan Rane invited Gadkari and another MLA to share the lunch he had brought from home. Gadkari had a third helping of a dish, and said it was not from Rane’s home, but from a small eatery, Prakash Uphar Grah, in Dadar. To prove his point, he took them there. And, he was right.

Gadkari does not overrate his role as a politician. He is the founder of three of the five entities that are part of Purti Group, he was chairman of two, promoter of two, director of one and board member of one. In his member’s profile in the 16th Lok Sabha, he identifies himself as an agriculturist by profession. He also has a special interest in green technology.

In 2010, the BJP’s first national executive meeting under his presidency was held in Nagpur. The highlight was the exhibition of the agriculture produce and green technology his Purti Group was involved in. It was lavishly laid out, and Gadkari, along with others, sang Hindi film songs late into the night. Smile on face and mic in hand, he sang “Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai re...” from the Rajesh Khanna-starrer Anand.

For Gadkari, that paheli (puzzle) called life can throw up many roles.