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The loneliness of Nitin Gadkari: The PM aspirant now isolated in BJP over road reforms

Gadkari did not recognise the deep-rooted transformation in the BJP’s internal dynamics.

Mumbai Mirror|
Updated: Sep 16, 2019, 09.50 PM IST
Nitin Gadkari once had his eyes on the country’s top job. No more
Nitin Gadkari once had his eyes on the country’s top job. No more
(This story originally appeared in on Sep 16, 2019)

Nitin Gadkari imagined he could be ahead of the curve in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second tenure as he tried in Modi’s first term, with mixed results. Gadkari did not recognise the deep-rooted transformation in the BJP’s internal dynamics. A bigger folly was to believe that the RSS would back him, come what may. The Sangh’s “support”, by virtue of a familial association with Nagpur, was peddled effortlessly by Gadkari’s fan club but it was a quasi myth.

The RSS clinically analyses the BJP’s equations, knows where its interests lie and who best serves those interests. There was no question that from 2012 Modi was Nagpur’s person for the country’s apex job, which is why the Sangh acquiesced when Gadkari was replaced as the BJP president in 2013 by Rajnath Singh, who suited Modi’s plans better at that point.

2019 is not 2014. Perhaps Modi was not that sure-footed when he took over power in Delhi the first time, which is why the partial illusion of Gadkari’s “closeness” to Nagpur endured and helped him fend off a barrage of criticism that his overdrive to push through the amended land acquisition bill provoked within and outside the BJP. Gadkari stuck to his guns and forced an ordinance to be issued after the bill tied itself in knots in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP-helmed NDA was in a minority. Finally, Modi realised the bill was politically untenable because the government and the BJP could not alienate the farmers and lose a vote bank.

Now, as Gadkari likewise persists with his defence of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, he is isolated in the BJP. He will have to back-pedal faster than he did on land acquisition because the BJP-ruled states proactively dissented from the changes. To be fair to Gadkari, the amendments were subject to and debated in official panels and, therefore, he alone cannot be accused of revising the Act. Gadkari’s points about the rise in road accidents, the lack of good Samaritans to help victims left to their fate after being run over, a cavalier indifference towards subjecting vehicles to the mandated pollution scrutiny, and a devil-may-care attitude to renewing insurance policies, using mobile phones on the road and jumping the red light (Delhi is an egregious offender on every count) merited the “reforms” he legislated in the amended Act and should be taken well. It was time to augment the penalties and prescribe imprisonment because the routine challans served by traffic cops on culprits were not enough and were often circumvented by paying small bribes.

It is fair to surmise that the government’s high-ups had concurred with the alterations that were expected to be welcomed by the urban thinking class. Quite the contrary happened. Typically, the city-bred upper and middle classes – on an SUV acquisition spree in the decades when economic liberalisation brought in loads of disposable cash and virtually every family member dreamt of possessing a Scorpio or a Hyundai – raised eyebrows at the manifold jump in the quantum of fines and worse, imprisonment. They want to have the best of both worlds, abuse the roads and get away scot free. However, they were not among the first victims of Gadkari’s road “reforms”. Reports of two-wheeler drivers fined far in excess of the cost of their often cast-off scooters or motorbikes, especially in provincial towns, and truckers harassed on highways surfaced since September 1, when the new legislation was enforced.

Modi’s state, Gujarat, was the first to put its foot down against implementing the Act. Would Vijay Rupani take an unequivocal stand unilaterally against a central Act? Your guess is as good as mine. Taking Rupani’s cue, other BJP ruled governments in Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand protested the amendments. The apparent dissonance between the Centre and the states finally prompted Gadkari to concede that the provinces were free to use the amendments in the way they wished to.

Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister, bucked the trend and welcomed Gadkari’s move. But lately Kejriwal is trying hard to ingratiate himself with the Centre, little realising that the power centre does not rest with the road transport and highways minister.

It’s been a bumpy ride on the road for Gadkari. The National Highways Authority of India’s debt soared from Rs 40,000 crore in 2014 – when the Modi government took over – to an unsustainable Rs 1.78 lakh crore in 2019, under Gadkari’s watch, according to journalist and author Sucheta Dalal in an article carried last week in The PMO reportedly asked the NHAI to discontinue the construction of roads and monetise assets but Gadkari won’t hear of it.

More hints from the top? Gadkari was eased out of a reconstituted Group of Ministers on Air India disinvestment, of which he was a part in Modi’s earlier regime. Those who know the Nagpur MP say he will soldier on, deluded by the belief that the RSS is on his side. That bubble burst long ago.

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