Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, at the airport in Nagpur, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 Image Credit: PTI

The latest member of the Nitin Gadkari fan club is Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister, who he had earlier sued for defamation. Kejriwal has publicly lauded him as the most helpful minister in the Modi Cabinet.

'Renewed relations': AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal arrives at Patiala House court in New Delhi for a hearing in a defamation case filed by BJP leader Nitin Gadkari Image Credit: Archives

These days, the 62-year-old Member of Parliament from Nagpur, Gadkari is winning new friends and influencing people, especially post near serial veiled attacks on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, asking them to take responsibility for the recent losses in the three heartland states.

It is Gadkari who is speaking, but he is the medium – the message is from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is a much delayed moment of reckoning for the Modi and Shah duo, and shows exactly how unpopular they are despite their victories.

When Gadkari says, as he did, at the annual Intelligence Bureau (where he did not speak a word about internal security) lecture that just being a good orator is not enough, it is apparent who the bulls-eye is. It is the unkindest cut for Modi who prides himself on being a better orator than Atal Behari Vajpayee.

So why is the winning duo of the BJP on Gadkari’s target?

Gadkari is the über favourite of the Sangh, the man they want to see as prime minister. And, Mohan Bhagwat, who publicly disavowed Shah’s war cry of “Congress mukt Bharat” (India free of the Congress) has offered protection to Gadkari from even the vile troll army of the BJP’s IT cell run by Modi.

Congress Candidate Vilas Muttemwar and BJP candidate Nitin Gadkari during the Ram Navami Shobha yatra in Nagpur Image Credit: Archives

Despite Gadkari’s serial attacks on Modi and Shah, he has not faced any troll attack. Modi had unleashed his troll army on Sushma Swaraj, but because of Sangh backing, he has chosen to be circumspect in Gadkari’s case.

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Interestingly, no newspaper or news channel has made Gadkari’s attacks a screaming slanging match. This is true testament to the control still exercised by Modi and Shah over the media and their obsession with headline management.

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Dilip Cherian, one of India’s foremost image consultants, has a nuanced take on Gadkari. “He is a very sharp politician. Gadkari has realised his moment is now. Hence the provocative statements. Even if he does not get anything now, what does he have to lose? He has positioned himself as chief among the choices of the BJP without Modi.”

A senior BJP leader says: “For the first time in the Sangh cadre, Gadkari’s acceptance is more than Modi’s, who is perceived as arrogant and is cut-off. This is a huge change since 2014. Gadkari also feels let down by Modi as he persuaded the Sangh top brass and then party president Rajnath Singh to accept Modi’s desire to make Shah party president. The RSS was reluctant as it did not want the prime minister of India and party president from the same state of Gujarat.”

Nitin Gadkari
Nitin Gadkari, India's road and transport minister, pauses during the ET Global Business Summit in New Delhi, India Image Credit: Archives

Despite this, Gadkari has emerged as the best performing minister in the Modi Cabinet much to the duo’s consternation.

And, the power equation has clearly changed in favour of the Sangh in the comeback of Modi baiter Gordhan Zadafia as the person in-charge of the critical state of Uttar Pradesh. Zadafia has a long history of abusing Modi and Shah. He has been a big supporter of Patidar leader Hardik Patel who has breached the Patidar citadel of Modi. Zadafia is close to RSS leader Sanjay Joshi, who Modi had banished from the BJP.

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The buzz is that even Joshi, who Modi considers his arch enemy, is all set to stage a comeback. With these appointments and Gadkari’s comments, the Sangh has put Modi on notice. The Sangh is also signaling to putative allies that if the BJP does not get an absolute majority, jettisoning Modi will not be a problem. From Gadkari, Rajnath Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, a host of leaders will happily dawn the mantle.

As Gadkari’s star is on the ascent, here’s a personal story.

Gadkari and his wife recently paid a personal visit to the newly married Isha Ambani at her new home. The Mukesh Ambani and Piramal families rolled out the red carpet.

- Swati Chaturvedi

When Gadkari was leaving, he was seen off to his car by all the billionaires present who vied with each other to chat with him.

Sounds familiar?

This is exactly the sort of treatment that Modi used to get from billionaires before he became prime minister. So the red carpet is ready.

Will Gadkari walk all the way to Red Fort on it?

Watch this space for the answer.

Swati is an award-winning journalist and author of 'I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army'. Her twitter handle is @bainjal.