New Delhi: Barely 10 weeks into office Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor, Vinai Kumar Saxena has scored an unlikely goal in forcing Arvind Kejriwal’s government into its biggest U-turn yet — rollback of its much-hyped new liquor policy in Delhi. He did it not by using the L-G’s veto powers, but with the threat of a CBI inquiry.
He’s shown the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), born of a movement against corruption, why they ought to have researched his track record more closely than they probably did.
Like Kejriwal until he joined politics, Saxena had been a full-time activist not connected with any political party, not even the BJP or the RSS. From Medha Patkar and Teesta Setalvad to Madame Tussauds museum in London, he always loved the tough fight — and mostly won.
As the chief of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), he landed in a controversy in 2017 when the government body replaced Mahatma Gandhi’s photo with that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in its annual calendars and diaries. Saxena had defended the move at the time, calling Modi “khadi’s biggest brand ambassador”.
In the last two years, Saxena has been especially vocal about his support for the Modi government’s policies such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and been a critic of the PM’s political opponents such as Rahul Gandhi.
In a tweet from the KVIC chairman’s Twitter handle, Rahul was referred to as “alien” from “India’s grassroots” for wearing a shirt of the US Polo brand during a Parliament session.
From a corporate executive with a leading cement manufacturer in the country to becoming Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Saxena has had an unusual career graph — compared to his predecessors who were all either civil servants or from a defence background.
He may not be that known in Lutyens’ Delhi, but he is said to be popular in Gujarat’s political and social circles.
His claim to fame, as several civil servants and activists based in Gujarat highlighted, is building a strong counter-movement against the Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan, especially from the early 1990s to late 2000s.
In 2015, a year after the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre, Saxena was appointed the KVIC chief — where he held the tenure for the longest term, until April this year, and is credited for giving a boost to the commission’s turnover.
On 26 May, he took charge as Delhi L-G, replacing Anil Baijal.
His appointment by the central government comes at a time when the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP, which is in charge of the elected government in Delhi, has been trying to spread its wings, especially after its victory in Punjab earlier this year, and position itself as a challenger to the BJP in states such as Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which go to the polls later this year.
Since he moved into Delhi’s Raj Niwas, Saxena, 63, has often been in the news for the stand-offs he has had with the ruling party over a range of issues.
A man of many shades
Saxena is seemingly a man of many shades.
His bio on the Raj Niwas website describes him thus: “A philanthropist in vision and a corporate scientist in action.” He also holds a pilot’s licence, the bio says.
A former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer described Saxena as an “ardent Gandhian” as he shared an anecdote about him.
When he visited London’s Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in 2008, Saxena is said to have been offended seeing Mahatma Gandhi’s statue “placed near a dustbin and an ice-cream shop on the second floor”, and “not sharing space with statues of other illustrious world leaders”, said the former civil servant, who did not wish to be identified.
“He (Saxena) wrote to Gordon Brown (then Prime Minister of UK) complaining about the position of Gandhi’s statue in the museum. In the letter, he is also learnt to have alleged racial bias,” the former IAS officer added.
“Gandhi’s statue was immediately moved to the ‘World Leaders’ Exhibition’ Hall on the ground floor of the museum. He (Saxena) often spoke about it in political circles and in meetings with bureaucrats, taking credit for it.”
The day Saxena took charge as Delhi’s L-G, the Madame Tussauds incident found a mention on the brief sent by the Union government to the Delhi Raj Niwas — a copy of which ThePrint has seen — but it ultimately did not make it to his bio on the Raj Niwas website.
“On the international front, he was bold enough to get (the) statue of Mahatma Gandhi shifted to the World Leaders’ Exhibition Hall at London’s Madame Tussauds Wax Museum,” the note read, without elaborating on the details of the event.
Fight against Narmada crusaders
An Ahmedabad-based lawyer, who claims to have known Saxena for several years, described him as “someone who doesn’t know how to let go”.
Saxena is learnt to have drawn the attention of senior BJP functionaries and the party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), when he started building a counter-movement against the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Saxena has had prolonged legal battles with Patkar and Mumbai-based activist Teesta Setalvad through an NGO named National Council for Civil Liberties, founded in 1991.
Patkar and her associates, who were against several river projects, were fierce opponents of not only the state government led by Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat between 2001 and 2014, but also of his predecessors, including Keshubhai Patel and Chimanbhai Patel, several civil servants and activists of Gujarat told ThePrint.
Saxena’s legal battles — even though most of them still remain unsettled — were reportedly instrumental in clearing various hurdles in the way of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project.
“When it comes to Patkar, Saxena seems to get into a never-give-up mode,” said the lawyer.
Even after he became the chairperson of KVIC, his bio on the commission’s website mentioned Patkar’s movement and called it an “evil design” that was “exposed” by Saxena.
“In April 2021, Patkar was on a field trip to West Bengal, interacting with farmers mainly over the farm laws agitation, which was at its peak at that point. Saxena, who was then the chairman of the Khadi commission, went after her, organising parallel dialogue sessions with locals in the areas visited by Patkar — continuing the counter campaign against her,” the lawyer added.
Saxena’s NGO had reportedly also demanded an apology from actor Aamir Khan for his statements supportive of Patkar over the rehabilitation of people affected by the Narmada dam in 2006, and written to actor Shabana Azmi twice in 2008 expressing disappointment over her backing a report of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences that was critical of the project.
Saxena — through his activism, which was in favour of the “pro-development” stance of the BJP governments in Gujarat in the 1990s and 2000s — is learnt to have been in the good books of most state ministers since the time of the Chimanbhai Patel-led government.
“I can’t recall ever seeing him on the ground. But he was still popular, and often discussed in Gujarat’s social circles, either for his serial litigations or for frequent newspaper advertisements his NGO published in Gujarat’s papers, of which several were considered to be defamatory in character, often attacking critics of the state government,” said Prakash N. Shah, an 82-year-old journalist-turned-civil rights activist based in Ahmedabad.
Kanpur University graduate
Born and brought up in Uttar Pradesh, Saxena graduated from Kanpur University in 1981. He started his career as an assistant officer with a private company in Rajasthan, before relocating to Gujarat in 1995, as general manager of the proposed Dholera Port Project, being developed by Adani Ports and JK Cement.
He was subsequently elevated to the position of CEO, and then director, of the project.
Saxena reportedly calls Gujarat his “second home state”.
In 2015, a year after Modi first assumed office as PM, Saxena was made the chairman of the KVIC.
It was during Saxena’s tenure that the KVIC clocked a historic turnover of Rs 1.15 lakh crore in 2021-22, the highest by KVIC and any FMCG company in India so far. According to the organisation’s annual reports, its turnover during the 2012-2013 financial year had been only around Rs 1,000 crore.
According to a senior KVIC official, who has worked closely with Saxena, his stint is seen as defining years for the agency that transformed the perception about khadi, making it internationally popular. “His work at khadi commission brought him further close to PM Modi,” the official added.
Over the last few years, Saxena has also been part of several important committees, which, according to some civil servants, adds to his influence.
For instance, in 2021, Saxena was appointed as a member of the national committee to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Independence, and also nominated as a member of the high-powered Padma awards selection committee. Between 2016 and 2022, Saxena was nominated every year as a member of the ‘empowered committee’ for evaluation of ‘Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Administration’.
A problem for Kejriwal
“I want to tell Delhi people that I will work as their local guardian… I will be visible more on the roads than at Raj Niwas” — these were the exact words of Saxena as he took charge as Delhi’s L-G.
Saxena indeed is visible on the roads. Every second day, he is seen at tree plantation drives, reviewing landfills, attending community events, inspecting water treatment plants, reviewing road upgradation projects and more.
Since taking charge, he has launched public campaigns on cleaning the Yamuna, solving Delhi’s groundwater shortage, and tackling the severe air pollution that the national capital witnesses every winter. Most of these happen to be areas in which Delhi’s AAP government has been struggling to bring change since it came to power in 2015.
While the AAP has been accusing Saxena of “interfering” in the elected government’s jurisdiction, Saxena has made it clear that he is not the type who prefers playing on the backfoot.
Weeks after taking charge, he gave approval to the Anti-Corruption Bureau to probe allegations of irregularities in the grant of tenders for the setting up of seven temporary Covid-19 hospitals by the AAP government.
On 22 July, Saxena recommended a CBI probe into Delhi’s excise policy.
On 27 July, he wrote to the Speaker of Delhi’s assembly, Ram Niwas Goel, asking for “constitutional compliance” of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act — a law passed by Parliament last year that gives overarching power over the Capital’s functioning to the L-G, a Centre-appointed officer — in a nuanced shift of strategy compared to his predecessor Anil Baijal.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)