THE HIGHWAY MAN Featured

Written by NITIN GADKARI
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Nitin Gadkari is a classic case of how the RSS nurtures ambitious men, assisting them in their rise in politics. The businessman turned politician is known to be an efficient administrator and his currency within the party and government is on the rise. Being the blue-eyed boy of the RSS, Gadkari could well be a future prime minister

It was the winter of 2009 and the party with a difference was due for a change of its leadership. Tradition had it that the party’s mother organization the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) indicated its preference and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then endorsed. There was a surprise up the RSS sleeve at its Delhi headquarters in Keshav Kunj in West Delhi. Inside a huge hall overflowing the media, the RSS announced a generational shift by anointing Nitin Gadkari as the next BJP chief taking over from the stalwart Rajnath Singh. Gadkari was a little known in Delhi circles having mostly worked in Maharashtra. On that December morning, things were about to change for the ever-smiling Nitin Gadkari who told the media on that eventful day that for him politics was not a career but an instrument of socio-economic change especially for the poor. At 52, he was the party’s youngest president ever.

Two months later at a massive BJP national council meeting at Indore organized by the Madhya Pradesh party strongman Kailash Vijayvargiya to endorse Gadkari’s elevation, the affable party chief broke into a popular Manna Dey song from the film Anand. Gadkari had the audience spellbound with Zindagi kaisi yeh paheli hai, kabhi yeh hasaaye kabhi yeh rulaaye. He may have chosen the song with the sudden shift in position in mind. He definitely had party workers humming when he sang the apt song on life being a mystery which gives unexpected moments of laughter and pain.

It was quite a journey for 52-year-old (now 60) Nitin Gadkari from an RSS swayamsevak (volunteer) to a student leader and then onto the BJP chief’s post. Till then Gadkari was the chief of the Maharashtra state BJP and had proved his mettle as a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government. As the PWD minister, he went on to build the MumbaiPune Expressway and other roadworks which earned him the sobriquet The Highway Man. As a visionary, Gadkari changed the work culture in his PWD department and made bureaucrats accountable and put into effect the build, operate and transfer (BOT) policy in infra projects.

Gadkari is an amiable figure in party circles, a man who maintains good relations with seniors and RSS leaders. He is from an RSS-ABVP background but is not really known for ideologically rigid positions. In Maharashtra, he’s best known for his term as the state PWD minister (1995-99), credited with building the Pune-Mumbai expressway and putting up several flyovers in Mumbai itself. He also runs several successful businesses in Nagpur that manufacture pipes, steel furniture and even silk saris

His electoral experience, however, is limited. He has been a member of the legislative council five times from the Nagpur region but hasn’t been in the state assembly although he is the president of the Maharashtra BJP. There is nothing spectacular in Gadkari’s past although his future may be different. Piyush Goel, now Railway Minister describes Gadkari as a simple and accessible leader. He remembers how the Gadkari house in Worli always served as a bhandar for any visiting party leader or worker. How he is so down to earth that he would buy vegetables in Nagpur and carry them on the flight to Mumbai where everything is more expensive. Fellow Maharashtrian and HRD minister Prakash Javadekar also talks about how Gadkari’s energy levels are phenomenal and that for 10 years he almost lived in Gadkari’s house in Nagpur, a man with a big heart.

Nitin Gadkari was born into a middle-class family in Nagpur in 1956. During his teens, he worked for the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and the student union ABVP. A post-graduate in commerce, he also holds a degree in law. After a stint as Nagpur’s mayor, Gadkari began his journey into state politics. In 1989, Gadkari got elected as an MLC from the Nagpur's graduate constituency. He served as an MLC for five terms but has never fought an Assembly election.

In 1995, Gadkari was made Minister of Public Works Department in Maharashtra. As the PWD minister, Gadkari was instrumental in streamlining several projects, including the Mumbai Pune Expressway, and improving the lot of Mumbai’s traffic. He also served as the state chief of Maharashtra BJP. Gadkari is an industrialist and owns several companies, including the Purti Group of companies

He was appointed the president of BJP in 2010 where he continued until 2013. Gadkari was seeking the second term as the party chief but resigned from the post on January 22, 2013, following allegations of irregularities in the firm Purti Group promoted by him. In 2012, following an RTI disclosure, a number of irregularities were discovered in the investments in the Purti group, which Gadkari had founded. In May 2013, the Income Tax department assessed the firm as having evaded taxes to the tune of Rs 7 crores via improper means. Gadkari, however, has termed these charges as baseless. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Gadkari was elected from Nagpur constituency.

Humble beginnings

Twenty-five years ago, a young Brahmin swayamsewak from Nagpur shied away from writing campaign messages on walls, painting it white instead so that someone else with a better handwriting could write the party message. Cut to 2017: Nitin Jairam Gadkari, 11 kg lighter after a bariatric surgery, has not just shed the fear of his own bad handwriting but is bold enough to try and write a new future for himself and his party.

Gadkari’s confidence levels saw a change since he took over as BJP president on December 19, 2009. The first-timer in national politics became something of a talking-point at the national executive in Indore in February 2010 when he sang a Bollywood song to enthuse the cadre. In October that year, when he released Vikas ke Path — a compilation of his speeches — the introduction had a telling observation: “When Gadkari came to Delhi, everyone asked who he was. This book aims to answer the question.”

Insiders would have you believe that the question has been answered for his detractors. In a party driven by established leaders at the centre, Gadkari used all of 2010 to consolidate his position. Senior party leaders were to admit later that he was quick to emerg as a president who took his own decisions and ensure that others in the party followed them.

In a faction-ridden party, with too many claimants for the prime ministerial post in 2014, the main job the RSS entrusted to Gadkari was to set the house in order. A brief that, many in the party say, was well delivered. It was said that in the last 15 years of the BJP, Gadkari was perhaps the first chief to have ensured the organisation had more say on party matters than the parliamentary party.

Insiders point out that Gadkari’s strength comes from following the Sangh’s ideology broadly but tweaking it wherever required to suit the situation. Gadkari has built his own base with a mix of Sangh and BJP leaders.

Gadkari now is well-versed with the vocabulary of new politics. One day, Gadkari would like to project himself as a PM candidate — or so say his camp followers.

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