On August 10, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India tabled in Parliament observed that the construction cost of the Dwarka Expressway built by the Ministry of Surface Transport was hugely inflated.

It said that instead of Rs 18 crore per km for the project sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, the ministry spent about Rs 250 crore per km.

Minister Nitin Gadkari claimed that he had explained the discrepancies to the CAG but his department had erred by making its written submission late. He said that the report had failed to take into account several components of the 29-km project, such as some flyovers and a 6-km tunnel.

The tabling of the CAG report against Gadkari’s ministry suggests that there is more to it than meets the eye. It comes against the backdrop of a much-discussed cold war between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gadkari. Speculation has been rife that in the eventuality of the Bharatiya Janata Party falling short of a majority in next year’s general election and needing support from Opposition parties to cobble up a coalition government, Gadkari could be the likely replacement for Modi.

After all, the BJP’s predatory politics under Modi have antagonised not only the entire Opposition but also long-standing alliance partners such as the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal. The chances of some Opposition parties falling for Modi’s post-election overtures to form a coalition government have worn out thin.

In that eventuality, there is no other credible name in BJP other than Gadkari acceptable to the Opposition as a whole. As a consequence, the CAG indictment of Gadkari appears more than an honest reporting by the government’s premier auditor.

Leaving aside the possible flaws in the cost calculations by CAG about this project, it is nobody’s case that the Modi government would not have been able to shield Gadkari even if the transport ministry would have been genuinely guilty of the cost overrun.

Nitin Gadkari in New Delhi on August 22. Credit: PTI.

After all, the Modi government has stood firmly behind its MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by some of India’s leading women wrestlers.

The Modi government has had no qualms about using government institutions to defend its deployment of opaque instruments such as the PM Cares Fund and anonymous electoral bonds. Should it have wanted, it would not have been difficult to influence the CAG – led by an officer from the Gujarat cadre – to sound the all-clear in the accounts of the Dwarka Expressway.

But the Modi government chose to put Gadkari in the box. This though he is rated by almost all political observers as well as an overwhelming section of the public as the brightest star in the otherwise-lacklustre Team Modi.

So why is Gadkari being made to feel the heat at a time when the BJP is going to the public with its report card seeking re-election in 2024?

Cornering Gadkari supports the speculation that Modi is not confident of getting a clear majority this time and hence doesn’t want to leave anything to chance for his return as prime minister.

The CAG shadow over Gadkari’s prospects in the run-up to the 2024 election seems to be a throwback to 2012, when the minister from Maharashtra had to bow out of the run for BJP president and as possible contender for the prime minister’s post in 2014 for the second time.

At the time, senior BJP leaders were believed to have ganged up against him by leaking files of alleged corruption in Gadkari’s Purti Group of Industries to the media.

It was not only Gadkari, who was then at the receiving end of the machinations, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh too. The Sangh had exercised its authority to put Gadkari to those positions.

The Sangh became quietly reconciled to being left high and dry and helplessly watched its authority over the BJP being eroded. Ten years on, it continues to be overshadowed by Modi’s overwhelming personality cult.

But at a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has itself surmised that Modi’s persona and Hindutva plank will not be sufficient to keep BJP’s victory chances alive in 2024, can the parent organisation remain a mute spectator to the re-run of the Gadkari saga?

The Sangh can only ill-afford to see the BJP lose power a year ahead of 2025, when it plans to celebrate its centenary with gusto. It will need to use its good offices, if not authority, with the Modi government, to ensure that the intra-party power struggle does not precipitate to the level where the opportunity to re-establish itself in power slips out of the BJP’s hands.

Clearly, the latest Gadkari episode has a much greater bearing on the Sangh’s immediate future than on Gadkari’s future politics.

All eyes would now be on the Sangh. But will it blink? That is something to watch out keenly for.