Arvind Kejriwal's press conference brought out the fact that Nitin Gadkari, in essence, is a man with too many business interests. Gadkari will struggle to remove this image, says Sheela Bhatt.
"Gadkarisaab ka bahut bada business empire hai, " roared Arvind Kejriwal, leader of India Against Corruption, in a press conference called to "expose" the Bharatiya Janata Party's president Nitin Gadkari. Kejriwal managed to attract more cameramen than Saif Ali Khan and Kareena at their wedding. But the titillation -- that news channel viewers are addicted to in political events -- was missing.
Kejriwal said, "Nitin Gadkari has five power producing industries and three sugar industries in Maharashtra. And that is the reason why Nitin Gadkari did not wish to raise the issue of corruption in irrigation dams. In a short span, Gadkari has built a huge business empire with more than 15 companies in sectors including construction, sugar, distillery, power, coal, agro etc."
If compared to the expose of Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the case of favour by the ruling party leader and the Nationalist Congress Party's powerful leader Ajit Pawar to Gadkari in the Vidarbha area of Maharashtra was much less sensational, and much less spicy.
And if compared to the media hype, Kejriwal could not get enough arsenal against Gadkari to make him shy away from the camera, as it has happened in the case of Robert Vadra.
Nevertheless, his allegations were nuanced, touching the concept of development, land allocation and environment. Kejriwal tried to show how Indian politicians disregard it to pursue their own interests. Gadakri himself came on camera to dismiss the allegation. His party's senior leaders were huddled together by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to reach out to the media and defend Gadkari.
They performed their duty well but one issue will continue to bother Gadkari.
Kejriwal has successfully damaged his image by branding him merely as a ruthless businessman.
A president of a political party has a certain political image. However, Indian political parties are not yet openly run by businessmen turned politicians, who keep signing deals for their companies while talking about serious national issues.
Since 2009 when he arrived in New Delhi from Nagpur, Gadkari could never create a serious political aura around him. He could renew his term only because the RSS dictates to the BJP. When he tried to put contractors and deal makers in assemblies and the Rajya Sabha his own image was tainted. He has gifted businessmen like Ajay Sancheti (whose company is in the irrigation row) to the BJP.
At best, Gadkari has been able to manipulate few things and few leaders in his favour. But he does have some unique qualities. Gadkari is a doer. He has gone into thoroughly on issues related to infrastructure building in India. Former PM Vajpayee entrusted him with a serious job after his successful work in building roads in Maharashtra. He is less complicated than most of his party leaders. If compared to Narendra Modi, he is open to ideas and easy to work with.
But Kejriwal's press conference and certain revelations tell an important reason behind his failure to build his image of a national political leader.
The mix of business with politics, that too if overtly done, doesn't go down well with the Indian electorate. It is not normal or natural for a president of a political party to keep talking about apolitical, business-related issues instead of deliberating more cerebral issues of national interests.
Whenever Gadkari has gone to see Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or whenever he met Prithviraj Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra, for official work, his talks would veer around his business in his home town. He brands himself as a 'social entrepreneur' but nobody would buy his argument.
The Purti group that he has built up is his asset. Hundreds of members of Parliament including Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Kamalnath and P Chidambaram's families have huge businesses, but none of them flaunt it as Gadkari does. Early this year, the crores he blew away on his son's wedding was startling. More than 5,000 people were invited for two wedding receptions.
Kejriwal's press conference brought out the fact that Gadkari, in essence, is a man with too many business interests behind him. A sharp perception went out that there is a conflict in his political and business interests. Gadkari will have to struggle to remove the image.
Whoever has covered rural India and particularly the sugar belt of Maharashtra, and the edible oil lobby of Gujarat knows well that the business interests of political leaders of different parties move in tandem. They help each other to expand their financial interests under the garb of co-operative societies and non-government organisations.
The co-operative societies are fertile ground of corruption for business-minded politicians and politically sharp businessmen. The unholy nexus of rival political parties are behind the growth of co-operatives in Maharashtra. Corruption, deception, hectic political activities and even crime is common in some co-operatives.
Since land is more easily available to co-operatives and NGOs, they create their business model in such way that agro-based industries get government-funded protection and also get many benefits by political coercion. If Gadkari is growing and selling cheaper or subsidised saplings on the controversial land he is not doing it out of his own pocket. In Gadkari's case the allegation (yet to be proved) is that Ajit Pawar helped him get a village land while ignoring the claim of the original land owner. Gadkari has not denied that his NGO got the possession of land. His argument is that the farmer who wanted that land was paid by the government back in 1984.
Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Gadkari himself gave their defence quite smugly because they were relieved to see that Kejriwal had not got something as explosive as what he hurled at Vadra.
But two things these BJP leaders would not say is that just because there is an unholy nexus between politicians in Maharashtra, Gadkari got the land. Ajit Pawar, then irrigation minister, approved Gadkari's plea but not the plea of the original land owner Ghadghe of Umred village in Vidarbha. If Pawar had allotted the same plot to Ghadghe it would have been legal too. But he is not part of the powerful nexus that Kejriwal calls a mafia-nexus.
Kejriwal says, "According to the rules, the excess land should either be returned to farmers or leased out to them for farming. Flouting these rules and despite repeated requests from farmers, the excess land was handed over to Nitin Gadkari's organisations by Ajit Pawar." Kejriwal adds, "This was also in violation of rules because land belonging to the irrigation department cannot be transferred or leased to private organisations. When farmers protested, they were threatened by Gandkari's henchmen."
In giving some details in Gadkari's case, Kejriwal seems to be overstating. Gadkari may get away with the so-called weak allegations but his "businessman" image that has clearly emerged today will stick.
Gadkari himself has a habit of boasting how his empire in Maharashtra is worth more than Rs 200 crore. He has made a short film, centering around him, on his various businesses, social and co-operative interests. His "ideas on development" is well-narrated in his book 'Vikas ke path'.
A few months after his arrival in New Delhi, in the presence of L K Advani at Siri fort auditorium, Gadkari had organised a programme to propagate how he employs 10,000 people and how he experiments with new ideas in his private adventures. Advani and Jaitley felt it awkward to see a film that eulogised Gadkari's business skills.
When the battle of leadership starts in the BJP, Gadkari will know why his emphasis on money is not always good politics, particularly in building a pan-India stature of himself.