There was a time during the Shiv Sena-BJP rule in Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999 when Nitin Gadkari was not being allowed to realise his full potential as minister for public works. The government had announced an ambitious plan to build 55 flyovers in Bombay to ease the traffic jams and the projects were not taking off.
That is when Gadkari decided to pay a visit to Bal Thackeray. "I do not want any interference from anybody in your party," he told the Sena leader. "Not even the chief minister's."
All sorts of people, including Thackeray's son and his favourite daughter-in-law, were in the habit of dropping in uninvited at Mantralaya and calling in ministers and officials to take stock of various projects. Gadkari understood and told Thackeray, "You want money? I will give you money - I will collect as much for you as I will for my own party. But call off your watchdogs. I will give you a report card periodically and it is you who will get the credit for my good work. But that work will not happen if such interference continues."
Thackeray was embarrassed into desisting from interfering and he did receive funds from Gadkari. Today those flyovers have given the city a much-needed breather and, although they were on the drawing board of the previous Congress government, no one can deny Gadkari the credit for completing the projects with a ruthlessness that even the Congress did not possess, in terms of bulldozing displaced residents and environmental objections.
It is a measure of Gadkari's enthusiasm that the metro project in Nagpur, which was conceptualised by the Congress-NCP, never took off until he became the Union roads and transport minister - bureaucrats will testify that within days he called them to revisit the project and work it out.
But Gadkari's efficiency is also his drawback. Thackeray (and now his son Uddhav) hated him for his plain-speak and I do not believe Narendra Modi trusts him one bit, either. Else Gadkari would have been the Maharashtra CM. I have it on authority that Gadkari was very upset at the time of the formation of the Maharashtra government - he confided to a friend that he did not even want to be CM; he would have been content if Modi had told him, "I need you in Delhi. Because you are my brightest minister and one with the most performance so far." Which Gadkari seriously believed he was. But that did not happen. Gadkari's proximity to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has been the shackle that keeps him back leading to even Subramanian Swamy recognising the fact and calling for more freedom to be given to the Union transport minister to perform.
There is no doubt about the fact that Gadkari had been Bhagwat's choice for PM. There was a plan to build him up for 2019 and give him Sushma Swaraj's place as Leader of the Opposition to ease his passage into the corridors of power. Predictably, the LK Advani camp derailed that plan by exposing him to charges of corruption and Modi stepped neatly in. But even today Gadkari continues to be Bhagwat's pet with the RSS not quite enamoured of the way Modi is going. No wonder then that Bhagwat should closet himself with Gadkari for over an hour and send a message loud and clear to the powers that be that his blue-eyed boy is not to be trifled with. Advani was nixed by Bhagwat for precisely that reason - getting in Gadkari's way. Now it is a Hobson's Choice for Modi.