Union Road Transport & Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, 62, was pretty much the face of the BJP’s 2014 campaign for the Maharashtra assembly election, but his outreach this time has been restricted to his home turf of Vidarbha.
While Gadkari claims his focus on the region is strategic, meant to tap his popularity here, multiple sources in the BJP told ThePrint that his role has been deliberately restricted this election season.
Gadkari, who was born in Nagpur and is its current Lok Sabha MP, is a native of Vidarbha, which accounts for 62 of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats.
According to sources in the BJP, he has addressed around 49 rallies in the current campaign, but only one has been outside Vidarbha, in Marathwada.
He has also been sidelined in ticket distribution, which largely has the stamp of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the sources said. For instance, some of his close aides and supporters have been unable to bag a ticket, including three-term MLA and state minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule.
“As far as Maharashtra elections are concerned, there are only two decision-making leaders: Amit Shah and Fadnavis,” one of the sources, a senior BJP leader, said.
“Gadkari has been left out of ticket distribution, too, and is restricted to Vidarbha, which is his stronghold and the party can’t afford to take any chance and upset his supporters,” the BJP leader added.
Speaking about Gadkari’s popularity in Nagpur, a BJP worker described huge crowds turning up for his rallies, “unlike Fadnavis, whose rallies don’t see much enthusiasm from people”.
“Even on Thursday, although he (Gadkari) got late, people waited patiently to catch a glimpse of him during his rally in Nagpur,” the worker said.
“He has a connect with the people and they value it. He’s a tall leader and it will not be easy to undermine him. Even in 2014, a number of MLAs from Vidarbha wanted him to be the CM, which shows how popular he is,” the worker added.
He is being challenged politically’
Gadkari, however, has been missing from major rallies of the party in the state this campaign season. For instance, at the 19 September Nashik rally of PM Narendra Modi to mark the end of CM Fadnavis’s statewide “rath-yatra”, Gadkari was absent. He was also not present at the rally addressed by BJP president Shah in Mumbai a few days later.
Advertisements issued by the BJP in local newspapers don’t feature him either, and only carry photographs of Modi, Shah, Fadnavis and BJP working president J.P. Nadda.
In the run-up to this year’s Lok Sabha elections, Gadkari, known to be close to the RSS, the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, was being talked about as a potential prime ministerial rival to Modi. He also made some statements that were perceived as being critical of Modi and Shah.
“As far as his ministry is concerned, he is already facing issues with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and now, politically, too, he is being challenged,” said a senior leader of the Maharashtra opposition.
Another hint that his stature is being undermined is the fact that Maharashtra is one of two BJP-ruled states, the other bring Gujarat, where Gadkari’s pet Motor Vehicles Act — with steep fines for violations — has not been implemented.
However, the claims of having been sidelined were dismissed by the union minister, who said he was present at all the meetings for ticket distribution.
“I’m basically from Vidarbha and I am concentrating extensively on this region. Vidarbha victory is important for forming the government, which is why I have been conducting my rallies here,” Gadkari said.
ThePrint reached the CM’s Office with text messages and calls for comment, but there was no response.