It's 9:30 on a weekday morning and Union Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari's official residence, a sprawling colonial-era bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi, is abuzz with activity. His drawing room is filling up with dozens of visitors hoping for a brief audience with the minister. They speak among themselves in hushed tones. Staff are seen scurrying through corridors with breakfast trays for the visitors. Two peacocks can be seen strutting about in the garden outside.
The cook is kept on his toes. He has to think up a different menu every day and churn out enough food so that no one goes away hungry.
On this day, the breakfast consists of crisp vadas, three varieties of chutney and tomato-cucumber sandwiches. There's also a choice of tea and juice. Gadkari is served a special concoction made of "amla, aloe vera and karela."
"Very healthy," he tells us.
We are a bit disappointed by the absence of typical Maharashtrian fare. No misal, no poha, no sabudana khichri. "Oh you should have told me. I would have arranged it!'' He recalls that he served misal to Bill and Melinda Gates when he hosted them for breakfast on one of their trips to India. "She loved it! She was scolding her husband for making her eat an American breakfast at the hotel," he laughs.
MJ Akbar, the well-known journalist and editor who is now the junior minister for External Affairs, drops in for an urgent meeting. Our conversation is interrupted as the two need some time behind closed doors to discuss an upcoming Indo-UAE investment summit to be held in Dubai. Gadkari will be representing India.
In two and a half years of the Modi government, Gadkari has made a reputation as a performer who is an exception of sorts in the Prime Minister's Office-centric regime. His ministries—Road Transport and Highways, and Shipping—seem to be largely free of the bottlenecks that plague many others as they wait for instructions and clearances from the PMO. Consequently, highways are being constructed at a furious pace (22 km a day currently, to be bumped up to 42 km per day by April 2017, Gadkari says proudly), stalled projects have finally got off the ground (95% of 403 stalled projects, worth ₹3.85 lakh crores, according to him) and a slew of new roadway networks are in the pipeline.
What makes him an exception?
He counters by saying it is incorrect to talk of centralized decision making. "It depends on the initiative of the minister. A lot of ministers are taking initiative. Some are taking more initiative, some are taking less initiative. When power is given to you, it is up to you to use the power in the interest of the people. It is not appropriate to blame the PM," he insists.
We persist. Does he have an advantage because of his close connection to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh? (Gadkari is known to be a favourite of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.) He hotly denies this. "What advantage?'' he asks. "It is a perception of the media. When I was appointed as BJP president, it was not a decision of the RSS. It was a decision of the senior leadership of the BJP. Yet the media wrote that I was chosen by the RSS." He resigned as BJP president in 2013 following allegations of impropriety in his Purti Group of companies. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Achche din depends on your perspective. What may be achche din for me may be burre din for you.
"The RSS is part of my life conviction. It is a great pleasure and pride for me when people say I am an RSS person. The RSS is an inspiration and motivation for me. Whatever good things I am doing is because of RSS,'' he says.
His denials notwithstanding, it is evident that he has a unique standing in the government. Unlike most of his other colleagues who try to remain below the radar, Gadkari is not media shy and is known to speak his mind. Like the time he told a gathering in Mumbai that the Modi campaign slogan "achche din" had become "gale mein haddi" or an albatross round the neck for the government.
I ask him if they were indeed feeling weighed down by this promise that won Modi an unexpected majority. Gadkari smiles sheepishly. "These are media tactics, to take things out of context," he replies. "Achche din depends on your perspective. What may be achche din for me may be burre din for you. What I meant was that there is so much hype about achche din that even when achche din have arrived, people don't appreciate it."
Watch Nitin Gadkari answering a rapid-fire round of questions:
Interestingly, perhaps because he is who he is, Gadkari is one of the few ministers who had the privilege of choosing his ministry when Modi was allotting portfolios in 2014. He reveals this rather inadvertently while talking about how much he loves his job. "When the PM asked me, I told him that I would be happy if you give me the roads ministry for infrastructure building,'' he says."Actually, he wanted to offer me some big ministry. But I said, this may be a small ministry but I like it because I have experience in it (Gadkari was PWD minister in Maharashtra in the BJP-Shiv Sena government from 1994). I can contribute for the country and for you in this sector." He shrewdly refrains from disclosing what ministry Modi had in mind for him.
Gadkari has his plate full today, both on the government front as well as the political front. Politically, he is overseeing the upcoming assembly election in Goa where the party is facing a stiff challenge from two forces—one is Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party which seems to be attracting large crowds, and the other is the new front floated by dismissed RSS Goa chief Subhash Velingkar. Goa is a small state but as the ruling party in the state, it's a prestigious contest which the BJP needs to win.
Gadkari dismisses both the challenges. "There is no relevance to AAP now. The image of AAP has totally collapsed. The way the leader of AAP is talking... every day there is a scandal, corruption. This is not Anna's movement," he says. As for Velingkar, he insists that there will be a patch up with the former state RSS chief. And he claims it will happen before the polls which are due in February-March 2017.
On the government front, Gadkari has set himself a frenetic pace. "Things are moving fast. My target is a very high target. After completing five years of this regime, I want that infrastructure should contribute 3% of the GDP. Development of waterways, development of roads, development of ports will all mean progress of the country,'' he emphasizes.
In addition, Modi has assigned him the formidable task of completing the ambitious Easterly-Westerly Bypass in 400 days. The bypass will be Delhi's lifeline as it is slated to take all trucks and other heavy moving thoroughfare that currently choke the city's roads and its residents' lungs. Gadkari says when it is complete, it will reduce traffic jams and pollution in the Capital by 50%.
I am not at all interested to become president [of BJP]. I am happy as an infrastructure minister. This is work which I love passionately.
"The PM has given me the order to complete this within 400 days. At first I said it is not possible. He said, you say yes to everything. Why are you saying no to this? You try for it. I said OK and I have accepted the challenge," he smiles. That was about a hundred days ago. Gadkari is confident that the project will be completed on schedule in the next 300 days.
He is at pains to stress that he is happy where he is and has no desire to become BJP president again, as was being speculated before Amit Shah got a second term.
"Presently, I am not going to interfere in the party. I am not asking questions of the PM. I am doing only my job. If anything party asks me to do, I will do it. I am not at all interested to become president [of BJP]. I am happy as an infrastructure minister. This is work which I love passionately," he declares.
So what differentiates the Modi government from previous governments including the first NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee? "This government has an economic approach for development. Eradication of poverty is an important goal," he points out. "We need more employment potential, more investment. We have appropriate policies for this. The tragedy of India is that it is a rich nation with a poor population. Now we have policies to make it a rich nation with rich people in the future."
What is it like working with Modi as a boss? "He is a man with vision and commitment, and takes decisions quickly with full clarity and he is a doer. He has the idea and vision for the country and he is working day and night for it," Gadkari says.
He refuses to discuss the surgical strikes and their aftermath, saying it's not good for the country to talk about these things. He's obviously taking the PM's orders seriously, to not indulge in chest thumping.
But while he holds back on this, he goes full throttle on the Congress and Rahul Gandhi who he describes as a "great supporter of the BJP." He chortles, "The immature role of the Congress leadership is creating a good atmosphere for the BJP and spoiling the image of the Congress. His [Rahul's] dream is that in the next election, at any cost, he will see that the BJP is re-elected. He is trying his level best to fulfill the mission of the BJP."
By this time, we have devoured platefuls of vadas and demolished several sandwiches as well. Gadkari seemed to be enjoying his food. He underwent a bariatric surgery for weight loss in 2011. He says he is now conscious of his diet and exercises for an hour each morning. "In fact I had to keep you waiting a little because I was still finishing my exercise." He has managed to lose 35 kg, he says proudly. "If health is good, stamina is good."
Exercise and breakfast out of the way, the man tasked with improving India's transportation infrastructure is ready for the long day ahead.