ON 26 JULY 2014, two months after Narendra Modi became the prime minister, the Sunday Guardian broke a story that sophisticated listening devices had been found in the official residence of Nitin Gadkari, a minister in Modi’s cabinet. The newspaper, closely aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, cited an anonymous source saying that the devices had been planted by US intelligence, and Subramanian Swamy, a member of parliament with the newly ruling BJP, alleged that the bugging had been done under the previous, Congress-led government.
Gadkari himself, in a tweet the next morning, called the story “highly speculative,” but stopped short of dismissing it outright. In parliament, opposition parties called for a probe and a statement from the prime minister, disrupting proceedings for two days. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, denied the story, but this did not dissuade them. It was a strange situation: the opposition was protesting the surveillance of a ruling minister, while members of the ruling party seemed too scared to speak up.
The report of the bugging erupted against the background of persistent rumours that ministers were under surveillance by the prime minister’s office. A story circulated of how the environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, while on the way to the airport attired in jeans at the start of an official trip abroad, received a call telling him that he was dressed too casually. In television debates on the bugging, the possibility of surveillance by the government or someone within the BJP cropped up time and again. Congress leaders pointed back to 2013, when there were allegations that Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had put a woman under surveillance for no legally tenable reason. The Congress leader Digvijay Singh stated that Modi and Amit Shah—Modi’s main lieutenant, and his home minister when he ruled Gujarat—“have sort of had a record.”
Gadkari categorically denied the story only on the second day after it appeared. According to a piece in Outlook magazine about a month later, Mohan Bhagwat—the head of the BJP’s political parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who has long been close to Gadkari—had intervened to ask him “to deny the snooping incident in public suggesting that it would dent the image of the BJP and the prime minister.”
IN NAGPUR, THE RSS’S HOME, the accepted truth is that Gadkari is the organisation’s favourite son. This was affirmed in 2009, when he was made the youngest ever national president of the BJP to the great displeasure of the party’s senior leaders in Delhi, and again in 2012, when the party’s constitution was amended to allow him a second term—although that term never came to pass. In the 2014 general election, he represented the BJP in Nagpur despite a lack of prior electoral success, and was voted into the Lok Sabha. When Modi formed his government, Gadkari was given charge of two ministries: the ministry of road transport and highways—coveted since it handles massive, money-spinning infrastructure projects, and since the roads it builds serve as advertisements for its work—as well as the ministry of shipping. In 2017, he also took charge of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation. Even as Modi has zealously centralised control, running almost all ministries through his own office, Gadkari has held on to power in his own, and used it to deliver visible results. This makes him an exception in the Modi cabinet—a minister who is doing well and being noticed for it, and cannot easily be undermined. “Most ministers are wary that the PM is watching,” a lobbyist for numerous large corporations told me. “He is not scared, because of the RSS’s backing. He might be respectful of the PM, but not fearful.”
Gadkari’s full importance is not immediately evident in the national capital, where he is rarely seen as more than a bridge between the BJP and the RSS. Like many regional leaders, away from his home turf he loses a good deal of his political mojo. He lacks the charisma or sophistication that could get him due attention from the Delhi media, and becomes a talking point only on the occasions he is touched by controversy—typically for airing outlandish ideas such as organising the collection of human urine for use as a substitute to fertiliser.
Yet behind the scenes, many people, particularly in Nagpur—including businessmen and former bureaucrats with intimate ties to the RSS, journalists who cover the organisation or work for publications affiliated to it, and leaders of both the RSS and the BJP—told me that if the RSS decided to replace Modi as the prime minister for any reason, it would choose Gadkari to take his place. In the organisation’s eyes, the Nagpur man, despite the lack of a mass base, ticks many boxes: a palatable caste and a record of loyalty; strong connections to major corporations in Mumbai, and an ability to manage money; bridges to politicians beyond his own party; an image not nearly as tainted by communal spite as Modi’s, hence sellable to a wider electorate; and, especially since entering the government, a carefully tended claim to good administration. In my interviews, people often compared him with one or all of the Maharashtrian leaders Pramod Mahajan, Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel—three politicians who share a renown for liaising across party lines, being intimate with major corporations, and raising party funds, not always through wholly scrupulous means.
Modi, as always in his career, has not been happy to watch the emergence of a possible rival. The result has been a subterranean rivalry playing out in the present government. “There is a tussle going on between the RSS and Modi—both want to pull down each other,” the political journalist Sujata Anandan, who has known Gadkari since his youth, told me. For now, with Modi’s popularity and power soaring, “the RSS has no choice,” but “there is the Modi faction and then there is the RSS faction within the government.” The factionalism is intense, Anandan added, and “it’s Nitin Gadkari who keeps the other faction alive. But very quietly.”
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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.