NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s resounding re-election win could pose an existential threat to the political career of Nitin Gadkari—the man who had most clearly been identified as a rival to the Modi-Shah duo.
In the months leading up to May 23, many had fanned speculation of propping up Gadkari as a possible replacement to Narendra Modi should the BJP fall well short of an absolute majority.
Now, as counting trends suggest a sweeping mandate for the current Prime Minister, Gadkari is faced with a more existential question: Will he retain an influence, or even a ministerial berth, in the second Modi government? Or will he join the growing pantheon of retired BJP leaders which includes L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sumitra Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj?
“Gadkari has friends across political divides. Shah may just press this point and make him the speaker of the House, which will effectively end Gadkari’s political career,” a close aide of Gadkari’s told HuffPost India. “There might be attempts to promote Devendra Fadnavis to the centre, who is extremely junior to Gadkari. We will be happy if Gadkari can at least retain his current position in the BJP structure.”
Gadkari himself, the aide said, was hoping to become deputy Prime Minister—a role that did not exist in the previous Modi government.
“He would try to get deputy prime minister’s post. Because that would secure him in this BJP structure controlled by Modi-Shah,” the aide said.
At the time of publication, Gadkari, the Union minister for surface transport, river development and Ganga rejuvenation in the first Modi cabinet, was over 13,157 votes ahead of his nearest rival and Congress candidate Nana Patole from the Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency.
A decade ago, Gadkari’s rise was meteoric—he was just an MLC from Maharashtra when was made the youngest president of the BJP in 2009. The then newly appointed RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had played a key role in Gadkari’ elevation.
Yet, just as Gadkari’s tenure came to a close, and the general elections of 2014 drew close, he was hit by corruption allegations. Gadkari stepped aside and Modi was declared the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate. At the time, RSS ideologue M.G.Vaidya openly accused Modi of conspiring to defame Gadkari.
But when Modi came to power with a resounding victory, Gadkari made peace with him and was made the surface transport minister in his cabinet. Yet, in October 2014, Devendra Fadnavis, a young BJP leader from Gadkari’s home town of Nagpur, was made Chief Minister of Maharashtra — compounding Gadkari’s unease.
The past five years have not been smooth for Gadkari. Rumour has it that he even considered quitting the government, but Bhagwat, from the RSS, stopped him from doing so.
On the eve of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Gadkari faced troubles on many fronts.
He had to turn away many tickets aspirants as ticket distribution was controlled by Amit Shah. He collapsed on stage thrice while campaigning, and his close aide suggested that the 62-year-old was under a lot of stress.
Days before the results, an RSS delegation led by RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi visited Gadkari at his residence in Nagpur.
This was a departure from the established norms in the RSS as the top two RSS leaders never go to meet BJP leaders. They summon BJP leaders, who usually have to rush to Nagpur to meet them.
Sources close to Gadkari in Nagpur said that Joshi might have tried to pacify an angry Gadkari.
Another surprise visitor to Gadkari in the past week was BJP general secretary in charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya. However, it was unclear what transpired at that meeting.
The next couple of days may decide the fate of the RSS’s blue-eyed boy from Nagpur, once considered the only BJP leader who could challenge Modi.