Nitin Gadkari is on a jet plane to Nagpur from Delhi. Scores of passengers greet him as he settles down in his seat. For the Union cabinet minister, the trip on March 23-a Saturday-is a homecoming of sorts. Just the previous day, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had cleared his candidacy for the Nagpur constituency in the upcoming Lok Sabha election-a seat he won handsomely in 2014. He is flying in to file his nomination papers.
As the IndiGo aircraft taxies to a halt at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar airport in Nagpur, Gadkari invites me to join him on the short drive from the apron to the terminal building. There is a sense of pride as he points to the spanking new airport complex and the metro rail line that connects it to the city centre. Both are projects that Gadkari worked hard to bring to fruition. Rattling off the details, he says the Multi-modal International Hub Airport at Nagpur-MIHAN for short-is a joint venture public sector company that is laying the foundation for massive industrial growth in the city by making the airport a cargo hub for the special economic zone across 40 square kilometres that has come up next to it. “Nagpur will save enormous costs for international cargo flights from East and South Asia to distribute goods to Central India, apart from relieving the congestion at Mumbai and Delhi airports,” he says.
Gadkari then turns to the metro rail project that he rammed through, shoving aside criticism of a sophisticated rapid transit system costing Rs 8,600 crore in a Tier-II city most of which is accessible in a 20-minute motor vehicle ride. He argues that rather than wait for Nagpur to descend into urban chaos with traffic jams and suffocate with vehicular pollution, the metro project, with a length of 41.7 kilometres and 40 stations, would more than make up for the cost by reducing commuting time for the city’s 2.9 million residents besides being environment-friendly. Pointing to the elevated platforms visible in the distance, Gadkari says with pride, “You see those pillars, we are ensuring that the metro will meet two-thirds of its power requirements from the solar photovoltaic panels installed on the roofs, boundary walls and the viaducts of the rail network.”
At the airport lounge, Gadkari is welcomed by a huge gathering of supporters shouting enthusiastic slogans and waving BJP flags. He wades into the crowd with a broad smile, greeting those he knows in Marathi and folding his hands in a namaste to the rest. Before he gets into his car, he turns and says, “2014 was the first election I fought in Nagpur and was elected because of my image and the hard work I put in as a state minister. This time, people will judge me by the amount I have changed the face of the city, the infrastructure that we have created and the work I have done for every class of the city. This is the city I was born in and I am committed to make it a metro of the future that will be a model for the country.”
As we drive around Nagpur, there is enough evidence to show that the city, best known for its large-sized oranges apart from being the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is being shaken awake from its languid past. Brand new flyovers-both for motor transport and the metro rail-are being constructed across the city at a frenetic pace. The horizon is dotted with high-rises coming up to meet the expected influx of population seeking new opportunities the city has to offer. IT sector giants such as the TCS and Infosys have set up offices in the MIHAN complex though vast swathes of the SEZ are yet to be occupied. With GDP growth rates projected at 8.4 per cent, Nagpur is now among the 10 fastest growing cities in the world. (The other nine are Indian too.)
All this has seen Nagpur finally act as the second capital of Maharashtra, and not just in name. That the chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, and Gadkari, acknowledged as one of the top performers of the Narendra Modi government, are sons of the city has made a world of a difference. Thanks to their efforts, power and investments in the state have shifted noticeably in recent years from western Maharashtra to Vidarbha. Working in tandem, Gadkari and Fadnavis (who is an MLA from the city) are positioning Nagpur as the commercial hub of the region, linking the neighbouring districts of Wardha and Gondia with a broad-gauge metro network that is already under construction.
Despite being the seat of Hindutva power, Nagpur became a BJP bastion only in recent years. Since Independence, the seat had been won mostly by the Congress. The BJP first registered a victory in the 1996 election after Banwarilal Purohit defected from the Congress and joined the party. However, the Congress wrested the seat back in 1998, with Villas Muttemwar winning it four times till Gadkari defeated him in 2014 by a margin of around 285,000 votes. The Modi wave saw the BJP capture all 10 Lok Sabha seats in the Vidarbha region for the first time. In the assembly election held the same year, the BJP won 44 of the 62 seats in the region, asserting its dominance over the Congress.
Till 2014, Gadkari had not contested a Lok Sabha or an assembly seat. He became a member of the Maharashtra state legislative council in 1989 from the Graduates Constituency in Nagpur when he was 32 and was renominated from there for several terms, including when he served as PWD minister between 1996 and 1999. It was during this stint that he was nicknamed “Roadkari” for the speed with which he built roads and flyovers, including the state-of-the-art Mumbai-Pune highway. That innings earned him the reputation of being a doer; it was also when he developed a penchant for setting what the co-author of his book, India Aspires, Tuhin Sinha, calls Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG), which he demonstrated in good measure as the Union minister for road transport and highways, shipping and water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.
Enter Nitin ‘roadkari’
Given the work he has done for Nagpur as well as his long list of achievements as Union minister, particularly on highway construction, most regard Gadkari’s re-election as a shoo-in. But Gadkari is never one to underestimate his opponents in the fray. This time, the Congress has bowled him a googly by choosing Nana Patole, who won the neighbouring Bhandara-Gondia seat on a BJP ticket in 2014, but left the party in 2017 in protest against the Modi government’s apathy in the face of farmers’ distress. Patole’s entry saw the warring Congress leaders in the district, including Muttemwar, set aside their differences and unite to defeat Gadkari.
At the Congress party office in the heart of old Nagpur, the mahila wing assembles to listen to Patole’s pitch against Gadkari. There’s no air-conditioning, just fans swirling furiously from the ceiling-the heat is oppressive despite the doors being wide open. Photographs of a galaxy of Congress leaders, including Nehru, Shastri and Indira, line the walls. Patole is two hours late so, to keep the crowd from leaving, local leaders stand up to give speeches. The Congress seems to lack the organisational efficiency and the money power that the BJP has.
Walk on the other side
When he finally arrives, Patole exudes energy and launches a virulent attack against Gadkari’s development claims. “They hastily inaugurated the Nagpur metro,” he thunders, “but is it running? They built cement roads, but didn’t they cause unprecedented flooding in July last year? Gadkari promised 50,000 jobs a year and now says he has provided only 25,000. The BJP has outsourced water supply to a private company-where is it going? Go and see the bad conditions in government hospitals. Is this what Gadkariji calls development?” When he speaks to me after the meeting, Patole repeats the charges he made and then adds, “He had also given a written assurance about the creation of a separate Vidarbha state. They had the government at the Centre and in the state. Why didn’t they do it?”
The next day, Muttemwar, the four-time MP from Nagpur, invites me for breakfast at his residence opposite the well-maintained Shankar Nagar gardens. While I tuck into a plate of idli and some poha, Muttemwar says he opted out of the contest because of a back problem. He claims that all the development works, including the airport complex, were initiated when he was the MP and that Gadkari is appropriating all the credit for the work the Congress did. He believes the reason he lost to Gadkari in 2014 was because of the virulent campaign the BJP ran against the performance of UPA-II and the Modi wave, not his lack of performance in his constituency.
Gadkari is a trifle irritated by his opponents’ claims and says he does not want to join issue with them but only emphasise that the MIHAN project was conceived when he was a minister in the state. Over a delicious drumstick curry, dal and rice lunch at his Ramnagar residence, Gadkari reels off a list of projects he initiated in Nagpur, ranging from roads, to healthcare, to providing electric taxis and buses and even holding cultural festivals. “Whatever I started,” he says expansively, “I have 101 per cent accountability. I had got schemes worth over Rs 70,000 crore for Nagpur. I will give the project-wise list and you can verify it for yourself.” What about his promise of a separate Vidarbha state? “We remain committed to that and a day will come when we will get separate statehood.”
Gadkari is also miffed by Patole’s accusation that he has privatised water distribution in the city for personal gain. “Everything is transparent,” he says. “Can they tell you even one contract for which a tender was not floated and which did not go to the lowest bidder? These are all baseless allegations at the time of elections because they don’t have any agenda.”
Gadkari doesn’t like to show how hurt he feels by such allegations. Looking into my eyes, he says firmly, “I have not been in business from 2012-I resigned from all that I had. I was never a businessman, I was a social entrepreneur. You take my track record even as a Union minister. I never want to give any false commitment. I monitor the projects personally because I feel that quality is the instrument of socio-economic reform. I want to do something for my country and my people. That is the inspiration and motivation. That is the reason for the time-bound and fast decision-making process, the positive attitude, development-oriented politics, quality consciousness and a corruption-free system.”
It is his affable and accommodative nature, his ability to carry along everyone, including his opponents, and his single-minded pursuit of ambitious development goals that has endeared Gadkari to so many across the political spectrum. So much so that there is talk of him as a potential prime ministerial candidate to replace Modi if the BJP’s individual tally drops below the 200 mark. He is dismissive of such talk, saying, “I have no such ambition. I don’t want to be either the PM or the CM of the state. I am a soldier of the party. I want to do something for my country and our poor people. And politics to me is the instrument of social reform.”
I decide to check out the metro rail project that Gadkari had initiated and which is now touted as the pride of Nagpur. Only one major line of around 13 km is currently running from the airport to the heart of Nagpur, and stopping at five stations. It is a Sunday afternoon and I am surprised to find the station jam-packed with commuters wanting to board the metro. The station remains spotlessly clean and as the train rolls in, there is a rush to get in though no one seems to get out. Among the commuters is Anmol Pandey, a laboratory assistant at a local university, and his wife Sneha with their two-year-old son Avnish. They have come to check the metro out. “We are proud of it,” says Pandey, “we don’t think it’s a waste of money. I never thought in my wildest imagination that we could get some development. Gadkariji is a taskmaster and delivers what he promises. We will certainly vote for him. And for Modiji.” That endorsement should warm Gadkari’s heart as he plunges into the electoral battle to reclaim his seat.