“If Piyush Goyal is a mere kaamgaar, what would you call the poor, ordinary worker?” asked Upendra Doshi, the Congress’s vice president in Mumbai who has played a long electoral innings with the Goyal family, winning some and losing other elections against them.
Doshi was twice defeated from Sion by Piyush Goyal’s mother Chandrakanta Goyal in elections to the Maharashtra Assembly. That was after he had defeated her in elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in the late 1980s. Doshi saw Piyush Goyal grow up alongside him and scoffs at the man who “always drank milk with a golden spoon” but is trying to pass himself off as an ordinary worker.
Piyush Goyal has received much flak on social media for taunting the Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday for being a privileged dynast – he used the term “naamdar” – but Doshi wonders if the minister would have got to where he is today had he not been the son of Chandrakanta and Vedprakash Goyal. Goyal senior was a general manager at a famous iron and steel company in Mumbai, but emerged as one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s top leaders during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era in the 1990s. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha and the treasurer of the BJP at a time when Pramod Mahajan dominated the party in both Maharashtra and New Delhi.
Back then, no one could survive in the state BJP without Mahajan’s benevolence. Many old timers such as Wamanrao Mahadik and Madhu Deolekar, despite being committed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers, were sidelined by the powerful BJP general secretary after they fell out with him over his flashy ways. Mahajan was the “Mr Moneybags” of the BJP and, therefore, of more consequence to party leaders at the Centre. But there were two exceptions – Nitin Gadkari and Vedprakash Goyal. Mahajan disliked both but could do little to sideline either since Gadkari had the special blessings of the RSS and Vedprakash Goyal of Vajpayee. So when Vajpayee nominated Goyal senior to the Rajya Sabha and appointed him both a central minister and the party treasurer, Mahajan, who intensely disliked anyone sharing the money management function with him, had no choice. Goyal senior was austere where Mahajan was flamboyant, and a quiet worker who stood his ground before the all-pervasive duo of Mahajan and his brother-in-law Gopinath Munde.
Although Mahajan could not shake Vajpayee’s trust in the Goyals – the prime minister would stay at their home while in Mumbai – the brothers-in-law made sure the Goyals’ influence went no further than Chandrakanta’s tickets to the Maharashtra Assembly. Nevertheless, Vajpayee, informed party leaders recall, quietly appointed the young Piyush Goyal, who had just returned from the United States, to the board of a nationalised bank headquartered in Gujarat. That stint brought Piyush Goyal into proximity with the people who would eventually lead the BJP in the country and trust him with many responsibilities, including that of the party’s spokesperson and head of its Information, Communication and Campaign Committee that oversaw the resounding victory in the 2014 election. And treasurer – like his father.
However, Piyush Goyal started to come into his own only after Mahajan’s premature death in 2006. Gadkari, who became the Maharashtra BJP president, began putting Munde in his place and sidelining all old Mahajan supporters. Goyal senior and his wife were semi-retired by then. But their son was waiting in the wings for a bigger role in his parents’ party. While, unlike his mother, he never contested a popular election, he followed his father into the Rajya Sabha. Today, he describes Maharashtra as his constituency.
“Even if all that does not make him a naamdar, he is no kaamgar,” said Doshi. “Studying in the US and qualifying as a chartered accountant in India costs money. You need to be maaldar [rich] at least even if not a dynast. But even if he is not a naamdar, he certainly is a sahib [upper class gentleman] by inheritance.”
On the rise
Piyush Goyal, through the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, led by the Congress, was one of the most reasonable, assertive and articulate spokespersons of the BJP, fiercely defending Narendra Modi through his 2012 victory in Gujarat and later his bid for prime ministership. That earned him a place in Modi’s government as Minister of State with Independent Charge for Power, but perhaps not Modi’s complete indulgence. According to people close to Piyush Goyal, Modi denied him leave to fly to the US to settle his daughter at her university in the autumn of 2014. “If you must go, resign your post, then leave,” he was told. He chose to stay.
Moreover, even as his stint as the power minister was appreciated, he was not trusted to deal with bureaucrats. Indeed, he faced many embarrassing moments when his appointments or orders promoting and extending tenures of his officers were overruled by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Piyush Goyal bore with the embarrassments stoically and passionately defended Modi’s claims about rural electrification even when they may not have been true. For example, on August 15, 2016, Modi claimed that Nagla Fatela village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district had been fully electrified 70 years after Independence. He ended up with egg on his face when it was discovered that while poles had been installed in the village, electricity was being supplied through illegal connections to some but not all households. It was left to Piyush Goyal to find a way out of the corner Modi had painted himself into and he did that bravely by sending a show cause notice to the distribution company.
“It is not possible for the Centre to verify each and every claim personally,” he said sheepishly. “We have to go by the information provided by the state government.” Uttar Pradesh was then ruled by the Samajwadi Party. It was convenient to shift the blame and that saved Modi’s bacon. Obviously, Modi appreciated the neat footwork for a year later Piyush Goyal was promoted as Cabinet minister and handed the key railways ministry. Yet, his suggestions continued to not find favour with Modi, who recently turned down the minister’s proposal to convert the iconic Victoria Terminus in Mumbai into a rail museum. Many bidders seemed to be waiting to take over the landmark building the moment the project was sanctioned but were disappointed.
Clearly, Piyush Goyal has no shortage of corporate benefactors willing to take both public and private enterprises off his hands. It is obvious that many of those friends and donors were inherited through his father’s good offices while Goyal senior was both a “kaamdar” that his son claims to be and the treasurer of the BJP. Said Milind Deora, son of former Mumbai Congress president Murli Deora, who is on cordial terms with Goyal as fellow member of the American Alumni Association, “You are who you are and as your father’s son you do have an advantage.”
The Deoras were and are similarly networked. Like Piyush Goyal, Milind Deora stepped neatly into his father’s shoes as MP and central minister in the previous Congress government. He now says, “You cannot be arrogant about that, however. Nor take that fact as an entitlement. But it is plain silly to deny your inheritance.”
Piyush Goyal would not have been where he is if he had not inherited at least the goodwill that the BJP still has for his parents.