Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari is hoping to retain his Lok Sabha constituency of Nagpur, which has enormous symbolic value for his party. After all, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party’s ideological parent, is located here.

His main opponent is Nanabhau Patole, who was with the BJP till 2017, when he quit to join the Congress. Sagar Dabrase of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi is the third candidate in Nagpur, but is not expected to have any serious impact.

The contest between Gadkari and Patole is especially interesting in the light of rumours that the BJP leader will project himself as the next prime minister after results are announced.

In 2014, Gadkari had defeated Vilas Muttemwar of the Congress from the Nagpur seat by a margin of 2,84,848 votes, with 54.13% of the vote against Muttemwar’s 27.90%. In the same election, Patole contested on a BJP ticket from the Bhandara-Gondiya constituency to defeat Nationalist Congress Party strongman Praful Patel by a margin of 149,254 votes. He will need a huge swing in his favour to unseat Gadkari in the RSS stronghold.

However, after polling, there were persistent murmurs on the ground that Gadkari had failed to do as well as he hoped to – perhaps because he had been undermined by members of his own party wary of his prime ministerial ambitions.

Fissures in the party?

Gadkari has made headlines over the past six months for his veiled criticism of the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre. After the BJP’s defeat in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year, Gadkari had said that pARTY leaders must be held accountable and that failures must be addressed.

In February, he told a gathering of workers of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student body, that party workers should fulfill their domestic responsibilities before working for the organisation and the country. Some observers interpretted this to be a sly reference to Prime Minister Modi’s decision to abandon his wife decades ago.

The same month, Gadkari urged governments to only make promises that could be fulfilled, saying citizens would beat up politicians who prompted them to dream but failed to fulfill their visions. The BJP later clarified that Gadkari was referring to the Congress and its chief Rahul Gandhi.

Earlier this month, Gadkari said that the BJP is not Modi’s or party chief Amit Shah’s party as it is not an individual-centric organisation. There had been speculation that Gadkari may be angling for the prime minister’s post in case the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance falls short of a majority in the elections. But Gadkari has laid this speculation to rest, saying that Modi will become the prime minister again after the elections.

Despite this, there were rumours that influential BJP workers were asked to stay away from Gadkari’s campaign, according to The Wire. Patole had claimed that fissures were visible within the BJP and said the alleged lack of BJP workers on the ground in Nagpur may be a sign that they are “seeing through” Modi’s promises.

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