The new Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena, has had an unusual career graph – from the corporate sector to NGO activism to the world of khadi, to here. In that long road, the path to arguably the hottest gubernatorial seat in the country was paved by his stints in Gujarat and as head of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). He took over the KVIC chairmanship in 2015, and the seven years since (his longest tenure at a job), were right in step with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goals – be it khadi a la Mahatma Gandhi, or promoting beekeeping and honey production.
For Delhi, the semi-state where the LG holds almost all the levers of power, Saxena is as much of an unknown entity, being the first person in the post from a non-bureaucratic and non-defence background.
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Before the KVIC, Saxena, who belongs to Uttar Pradesh and is an alumnus of Kanpur University, had spent most of his working life in Gujarat. The 64-year-old is known to have joined cement manufacturing firm JK Group, based in Rajasthan, around 1984. In the 1990s, the company placed him as general manager in-charge of the Dholera Port Project, a joint project of JK Group , Adani Group and the Gujarat government. He was later elevated as CEO and Director of the project.
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While the port was to be developed at an estimated cost of Rs 3,000 crore in the Gulf of Khambhat and got formal approval from the Gujarat Maritime Board in January 2006, it never took off.
However, Saxena didn’t look back, gradually transforming from a corporate employee to an activist. In 1991, he founded an NGO called the National Council for Civil Liberties, which later took on Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar. At the time, Patkar was one of the most fierce opponents of the Sardar Sarovar Project being pushed by then Modi-led Gujarat government.
A criminal trial is still on in Ahmedabad Metropolitan Court over an alleged assault on Patkar at Sabarmati Ashram on April 7, 2002, during a peace meeting, in which Saxena is among those named. The other accused include current Ahmedabad city BJP chief and former city mayor Amit P Shah and state BJP leader Amit Thaker.
A project called “Mission ENDURE (Ensuring Dust Reduction)” launched by his NGO in Ahmedabad in 2004 won a ‘Dubai International Award’ instituted by the UN-Habitat.
So much water has flown under the bridge since Saxena’s alleged scuffle at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, that the KVIC (which comes under the Union Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises) was chosen as the nodel agency to popularise khadi as part of the Rs 1,200 -crore Sabarmati Ashram Redevelopment Project. One of the trusts under the ashram, the Khadi Gramudyog Prayog Samiti, falls directly under the KVIC.
In 2017, the KVIC held its first-ever meeting on the Sabarmati Ashram premises in Ahmedabad, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Champaran movement.
By Saxena’s own admission, he brought about a “turnaround” of the KVIC in his tenure. In his numerous tweets as KVIC head, he always thanked PM Modi’s vision for all that he had achieved. The KVIC also distributed bee boxes in Banaskantha district in Gujarat as part of ‘Honey Mission’, to mark the launch of PM Modi’s “Sweet Revolution”.
One such attribution in 2017 had led to a controversy when the KVIC replaced Mahatma Gandhi’s photos with that of Modi in its annual calendars and diaries. Saxena had defended the move saying Modi was “khadi’s biggest brand ambassador”.
In 2020, the KVIC, in another step close to Gujarat, opened its first silk processing plant in Surendranagar, for promotion of the Patola sari. The plant employs 90 local women, “70 of which are from the Muslim Community”, according to the KVIC.
Saxena also built a reputation for zealously guarding the use of khadi word itself as the KVIC chairman. In 2018, the KVIC sued the FabIndia chain for using the KVIC trademark charkha and selling clothing with khadi branding. FabIndia had to give an undertaking that it was “presently” not using the word ‘khadi’, and that if it wanted to do so in the future, it would give the KVIC a four-week notice. The KVIC had also sought Rs 525 crore in damages from FabIndia in another suit, which remains pending.
In 2021, the KVIC sued the Khadi Design Council of India and others, leading to the Delhi High Court issuing an injunction order prohibiting them from “manufacturing, selling, offering for sale, advertising, directly or indirectly providing any kind of goods and/or services under the trademark ‘KHADI’.
As per Saxena’s profile on the KVIC website, he is particularly proud of one episode in his life, from London’s Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. According to the profile, he was offended at Mahatma Gandhi’s statue being “placed on the second floor near an Ice Cream Parlor close to a dustbin – instead of the wing where the statues of other illustrious world leaders were exhibited” at the museum. So, he apparently wrote to then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, complaining that this smacked of “racial bias against India and its role models of historic reverence”. “The Mahatma’s statue was immediately shifted to the ‘World Leaders’ Exhibition’ hall on the ground floor,” the profile says.
The profile also calls him “a philanthropist in vision” and “corporate scientist in action”, hails his “business leadership in Western India on a diverse range of corporate matters such as petroleum and ports – fused with technical, legal, social and cultural skills ” and says his “development-oriented mind and his administrative acumen is no less than a latent prodigy”.
His first day as LG on Thursday showed Saxena all set to acquire some new skills. At his oath-taking ceremony, he recited a poem on communal harmony, referring to the Delhi riots and urging everyone to work together. Later, as suitably captured by the LG Delhi’s Twitter handle, Saxena made a halt at Rajghat to pay tributes to Mahatma Gandhi.
He vowed to uphold Gandhi’s ideals, and as LG, to be Delhi’s “Local Guardian”.
(With inputs from PARIMAL DABHI and ENS, Delhi)