He wants to connect India, boost the economy, generate millions of jobs, conquer pollution and clean up the Ganga—all of it in time for the next General Election. The ambitious Union minister in conversation with Amita Shah
WHEN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi was going in for the third reshuffle of his Council of Ministers in September, murmurs of being given charge of the Railways Ministry were on Nitin Gadkari’s mind—as a worry. As the buzz grew louder and the day of reckoning neared, Gadkari decided to take his concerns directly to the Prime Minister. India’s Union Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister is understood to have conveyed to Modi the difficulties he foresaw in living up to expectations with a system as large as the Railways under his charge in the 20-odd months left before the next General Election. Aware of his high rank on the Central performance review charts, Gadkari said that it had taken over two years for his hard work to achieve results in the departments already assigned to him. He, however, was willing to take up a challenge at a smaller ministry, one where he would be able to deliver. The Prime Minister eventually gave him additional charge of Water Resources, which oversees one of the Government’s pet projects, the Clean Ganga Mission.
The minister’s reluctance to take up Railways at that juncture also stemmed from the apprehension that it could have thrown his plans for existing portfolios out of gear. Today, he has little to distract him from his two big dream highway projects: an all-weather ‘Chaardham’ link for Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri in Uttarakhand, and road connectivity from Pithoragarh in the hill state to Mansarovar in Tibet. Far more ambitiously, he has four broader missions for which he has set 2019 targets to be achieved by his Ministry: economic growth to be upped by 2-3 percentage through public work, 10 million people to be given direct or indirect employment, Rs 25 lakh crore in investment to be attracted (Rs 7 lakh crore is already committed); and the road fatality count to be halved at the very least from the current annual figure of 150,000. “These are emotional, sensitive challenges for me,” Gadkari tells Open in an exclusive interview, “Whether I remain a minister or not, I want to do this work and go. This is my inspiration and motivation. Let us see how much I can do.”
These are uphill tasks, he admits. So is the Clean Ganga Mission, part of a BJP campaign promise that Modi has entrusted to him. But Gadkari is not one to be daunted. Nearly two months after taking over the Water Resources Ministry, a responsibility bigger than he anticipated, he has immersed himself in the river’s rejuvenation. His deadline for its clean-up is March 2019, just in time for that year’s Lok Sabha polls. His approach is innovative. It involves getting industrialists, corporate houses, public sector banks and wealthy NRIs to adopt stretches of the river’s banks, an effort he is leading himself—beginning from Delhi and Mumbai, and then on to other cities, including a visit to London. “We have made a complete plan for the banks along the Ganga,” says Gadkari, “We will make films and websites on its packages and invite them. We have accumulated Rs 200 crore in donations for it. We will tell them that they can choose a project, change the design if they so wish, do the work and even maintain it for 10-15 years.” A committee will be set up for the same and Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs) signed. He expects to get as many as 150 projects going by next March along the 2,525-km-long river.
The minister has a variety of statistics on the tips of his fingers. Ten big cities cause 70 per cent of the Ganga’s pollution and dirty water from 4,500 villages flows it. Of the 150 projects identified, 97 aim to prevent dirty water from getting in. Of these, 90 have already been awarded, seven will soon be, and 55 state government projects will begin by March. “If all these projects get going, we should be able to complete the work by [our deadline] and there should be some difference in the water pollution levels,” he says.
This is not Gadkari’s first acquaintance with the Ganga mission. According to sources in the Ministry, Uma Bharti, his Cabinet colleague who was in charge of it earlier, would often consult him on assorted issues. That it was a project dear to the Prime Minister, whose Varanasi constituency is on the Gangetic banks, has been clear to everyone in the party. Also on the Ministry’s agenda is a national programme to interlink rivers. Luckily for Gadkari, a good monsoon this year has meant that river disputes—barring the one over the Satluj Yamuna Link between Punjab and Haryana—have not reared their head.
1,065 million tonnes annual cargo handling capacity at India’s 12 major ports as of March 31, 2017
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With the increase in workload, 60-year-old Gadkari has little time left for party activities, though that is what first earned him national prominence after he became the BJP’s chief in early 2010 for a three-year term. “I feel I should be able to do whatever work I take up properly. That is why I do not do any party work. I only go to my constituency. Otherwise, from 8 am to midnight I do work related to my departments,” he says, thankful for the hour-long Panchakarma massage he squeezes in every morning. He also listens to music, his latest favourites being Bollywood songs by Arijit Singh and Arman Singh.
At his 2, Motilal Nehru Place residence, a Lutyens’ bungalow which has been declared a heritage property, life begins early. Sources say he has instructed his staff that nobody should be barred from meeting him. Even if there is a crowd of 50 or more people waiting, he meets all of them. Back at his Nagpur home, large numbers gather in a hall that is called ‘the OPD’, an exercise to which he devotes four hours on weekend mornings, overseeing the progress of consultation cabins around it where his appointees address the concerns of visitors. If need be, he meets help-seekers himself.
THE MINISTER IS known to maintain cordial relations with political rivals regardless of ideological differences. When he arrived in Delhi as BJP president in January 2010, he was an outsider to the capital’s political circles. Among those he visited for blessings was the veteran Communist AB Bardhan, also the CPI’s general secretary at the time. By then, the Left, whose ideology makes it a foe of the BJP, was no longer an ally of the Congress-led UPA at the Centre. Gadkari’s warm ties with the Left leader go back to his student days in Nagpur, where Bardhan was active in the Communist and trade union movements. As a young man, Gadkari has never hesitated to say, he used to listen to the “fiery speeches” of Bardhan and Socialist leader George Fernandes. When Bardhan passed away in 2016, Gadkari could not attend the funeral in Delhi but made it a point to attend a condolence meeting in Nagpur.
This cordiality has helped Gadkari as a minister, particularly on matters of infrastructure that require the cooperation of state chief ministers. Earlier this year, during a Lok Sabha debate on the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016, he was praised for his work by opposition leaders such as Congress’ Mallikarjun Kharge, BJD’s Tathagata Satpathy and Trinamool’s Dinesh Trivedi.
Gadkari is also known to speak his mind at Cabinet meetings, as elsewhere. “I say and do what I feel,” he says, “I was not interested in the politics of power in the past, nor am I today. What I got, what I did not… it doesn’t matter. I have got much more than what I deserved. Now my concern is what I can give the country and society.”
Drawing inspiration from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor, and its students wing ABVP to join politics in the mid-1970s, Gadkari found himself motivated by the views and ideals of socialist Ram Manohar Lohia and BJP ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay. Politics to him, he has often said, is an instrument of socio-economic reform. His close association with the RSS, which has its headquarters in Nagpur, has given him an additional task: that of coordination between the Sangh and the Union Government. Leaders of the RSS and its affiliates have a comfort level with Gadkari that goes beyond the Nagpur connection. Many meetings between senior Sangh leaders and Cabinet ministers have been held at his residence in Delhi, and officials of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh are accustomed to dropping by to convey their views on policy matters. When the GST was launched, for example, the farmer affiliate expressed unhappiness over the 12 per cent tax on fertilisers.
I will strive to do whatever I can for the country. Sometimes, the work does not meet the expectations I have, which are bigger
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“He is a doer and a man of his word,” says former Union minister and NCP leader Praful Patel, who had also fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, a cotton belt infamous for farmer suicides. While Gadkari made his Lok Sabha debut by winning Nagpur that year, Patel lost his Bhandara-Gondia seat. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a BJP general secretary and Rajya Sabha member from Maharashtra, describes Gadkari as a workaholic with an active mind. “He is a man of ideas and his innovative mind is always at work to find solutions to issues that common citizens face, especially farmers. He is known also for thinking big and promoting out-of-the-box thinking. ‘Work for every party worker’ and ‘A party worker for every assignment’ is his functional organisational method,” he says, recalling how Gadkari once unhesitatingly sang a song for party delegates in Indore after he took over as party chief.
Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan credits Gadkari with the construction of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway when the latter was a PWD minister in the state under a Shiv Sena- BJP coalition. “He has built a number of roads, but he is given to slipping into hyperbole. There are sometimes gaps between his claims and the facts on rural and urban roads,” says Chavan.
When Gadkari moved to Delhi seven years ago as the BJP’s youngest ever president, he brought to the party’s Ashoka Road headquarters his Marathi style of functioning, right from his half- sleeves shirt and sandals to late-night huddles. His day would start and end late. Those were tumultuous times for the party, which had lost two successive Lok Sabha elections and was unsure of who to project as its prime ministerial candidate. There was infighting and dissent. Then, towards the end of his three-year term, he himself came under a cloud of allegations involving the business dealings of his Purti Group. While the Sangh backed him, BJP veterans such as LK Advani and Yashwant Sinha resisted his getting a second term as the party chief. In a dramatic turn of events, as the Income Tax Department conducted searches at the offices of companies linked to Gadkari, he quit the race. Later, he was cleared of involvement. “But that taint, the way he exited from the position, still hangs on him,” says Chavan, “Only two BJP presidents—LK Advani and Bangaru Laxman—had to resign this way.”
Gadkari has put that episode behind him and moved on. He neither looks back, he says, nor at what the future holds for him. “I have come here and this is my destiny,” he says, “I don’t have any wish to return.” Whether in charge of a party or of a ministry, the point is to perform, he believes. “Every job has its own challenges, magnitude. I have decided that I can’t work miracles. I will strive to do whatever I can for the country, its development, for the poor. Sometimes, the work does not meet the expectations I have, which are bigger. But I am happy to see the response of people to my work. It’s not my efforts alone. My entire team works day and night.”
The minister seems aware that he often criticised for making unrealistic promises. His latest big infrastructure launch is the Rs 7 lakh crore Bharatmala, India’s biggest road initiative after the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) under which around 50,000 km of roads were built. Speaking of its conceptual logic, he says of the 5.2-million km of road length in the country, only 2 per cent bears 40 per cent of all annual traffic. Also, automobile sales are rising in double digits annually, and of the half-million accidents every year, 36 per cent are on national highways. “There was need for diversification. New roads would mean short cuts, expressways and less accidents; people will get relief. Some areas are neglected and traffic is concentrated in some places,” he says.
Bharatmala’s first phase covers 24,800 km of road length; this is in addition to the 10,000 km of NHDP work that remains to be done. The development of tourism, industry, economic corridors and accessibility to backward areas and border zones were all kept in mind while planning this project. As of now, only 300 district headquarters are linked by four-lane roads, he says, and this figure will rise to 550. A road outreach to Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal would cost Rs 24,000 crore. “The Prime Minister is talking of New India and I am confident that India’s infrastructure will be world class,” says Gadkari.
Infrastructure development is part of the Modi Government’s vision of economic resurgence that includes GST and demonetisation as other enablers, moves that Gadkari says the Centre will not compromise on. “These decisions concern economic reforms that are taken keeping in mind the next 20-25 years. It should not be politicised. It would be better if there is consensus. GST, for example, after nationalisation [of key sectors], is the biggest economic reform. In the beginning, there are teething troubles, but these are in the long-term interests of the country.”
Gadkari dismisses sundry disputes in India over beef consumption or the Taj Mahal that have attended the BJP’s ascent to power. “These controversies have no link to the party or Government. But to project them as the party’s viewpoint is the political agenda of some people,” he says. “The country is going forward, and new issues are there. Who wants to eat what is a person’s right. The Taj Mahal is a historic structure. To dig out history and create a controversy is not correct. We should leave these aside and pursue issues of development, of security. Those who have agendas—parties and the media— take up small issues and highlight them. They are looking for an opportunity [to criticise the BJP]. But why should we give them that chance? Our people should be careful. If the party president, general secretaries, Prime Minister, former party chiefs, etcetera speak [on such matters], it’s different.”
To him, the path of progress is clear. “In 2011-12, we awarded 2,000 km of roads. Backward areas, economic corridors and border roads are our concerns. We have identified 13 places where airports can be built,” he says. Pollution is to be controlled too, through the adoption of electric engines and cleaner fuels for motor transportation. “I am not against the automobile industry” he says, “It should grow, but pollution should be kept in mind.”
That’s a subject on which Gadkari has more to say, but he needs to go catch a flight to Mumbai and then visit Nagpur, his constituency and hometown. “I have seen people who have dedicated their lives to the country. I am nothing in front of them,” he says as he gets up to leave, “I am a simple man. I have a family.”