Like anyone else, Nitin Gadkari is entitled to take unkindly to impediments in the way of pet projects, yet as a Cabinet minister he is duty-bound to be circumspect in his reactions. As well as realise that the Indian Navy is not to be slammed in the same fashion as political adversaries. His threat not to allow “another inch of land” for a naval housing project in South Mumbai is an over-reaction to the “silent service” raising objections to a floating jetty for a seaplane service near the Malabar Hill waterfront in the western metropolis. It speaks volumes for the maturity and restraint of the FOC-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, in whose presence the minister fired his lowly broadside, that he opted against a slanging match in public.

He would, however, be expected in the interests of the Navy, to register dignified protest at the appropriate level. Whether other senior leaders of the government caution Gadkari against such emotional outbursts constitutes a test of overall responsibility in a Cabinet system of governance. The minister could well have raised the issue at a Cabinet meeting, instead of creating an impression he was empowered to cut the defence services to size: for he went on to say “We are the government.

The Navy and the Defence Ministry are not the government”. Wonder what Nirmala Sitharaman would say to that?
But Gadkari was not entirely incorrect in contending that the armed services often overdo their “security objections” to projects of civilian importance. For “historical” reasons prime real estate in several cities is under military control and it is quite an ordeal for the local authorities to regain that land for road-widening, flyovers etc. The forces have a mistaken belief that “defence land” was bequeathed to them by divine authority, when it really is “public land”. True that they cannot be expected to surrender land that is now enveloped by the spread of urbanisation, yet they cannot always retain their islands of exclusivity. As in all such matters a balance needs to be struck.

That balance will hardly be attained by Gadkari questioning the right of the Navy to have large installations in Mumbai when it should be “patrolling the Pakistan border”. It betrays a worrisome ignorance of defence matters. Mumbai is still the busiest port in the country, and keeping open the commercially critical sea-lanes is a key naval task.
Another query that needs addressing is which ministry will supervise seaplane operations should these dreams materialise ~ the civil aviation ministry has maintained a stoic silence on the issue. A convenient “excuse” for ministerial outbursts ~ Gadkari’s is not the only one ~ is that quite a few in NDA-II are first-timers. Yet over three years in office ought to have taught them to abandon pique-propelled ego trips.