Before setting out on his campaign, Nitin Jairam Gadkari, Union minister, sitting MP and BJP nominee in Nagpur, and a committed RSS worker, tells journalists over breakfast at his home that the BJP is going to win more than 300 seats.
Where is the party hoping to make gains, ask the journalists. “Karnataka,” Gadkari replies, in all seriousness.
The sambar-vada, milk shake and cubed papayas, served by his wife Kanchan, will see him through until 3 pm.
Monday’s campaign route will take him through the south-west Assembly segment, won by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis by a huge margin of 70,000 votes.
“I drive through one Assembly constituency a day,” he says, as he gets into the front seat of the Fortuner. A serious accident a few years ago has meant Gadkari cannot walk long stretches, unlike his BJP-turned-Congress rival Nana Patole, whose athletic six-foot plus frame has seen him through many walkathons in the campaign.
Patole may have had no choice as he is new to the area, unlike Gadkari. “I personally know 50,000 people in Nagpur. People are very well acquainted with my name, face and work,” the Union minister says.
At Laxminagar, Gadkari disembarks near a ground where hundreds of his supporters are gathered sporting saffron dupattas and caps, and holding aloft BJP flags. They surge ahead along with him even as he clambers up on another vehicle with supporters rushing in from all sides to get up there. His security commandos push them off to get a foothold in the crowded vehicle while others simply hang on the sidesteps, as the convoy starts the journey along a circuitous route.
Hundreds of supporters tag along, in the front and at the back, on their bikes. Amid slogans of “Bharatiya Janata Party cha vijay aso” and “Nitin Gadkari age badho, ham tumhare saath hai”, the procession begins its journey through the BJP stronghold.
Along every 500 to 600 m, the cavalcade stops for Gadkari to speak. “Thanks for the welcome. I have come to seek your blessings. You chose me in 2014 to help me do lot of work for the country, within and even outside. For me, to be able to continue working more, I need your support. I also have a special request for you. Please meet at least 100 such people who don’t agree with us and try to convince them to vote for me. I also request you to finish voting by 11 am to escape the scorching heat. I also request you not to go for NOTA. Last time, I had won by 2,85,000 votes. This time, I will win by over five lakh votes,” he says, ending the speech with three rounds of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
All along, loudspeakers attached to his vehicle continue to blare songs singing paeans to the man. “Yaro kaho dil se, Nitinji firse,” goes one. BJP workers and supporters gather at every nook and corner to garland him, shower rose petals and apply kumkum on his forehead along with an owalni (tika ceremony). Sandal bands beat their hearts out at many corners with firecrackers adding to the cacophony.
Along the way, young and old, some also with children in their arms, rush to shake hands by stretching themselves as high as possible to reach him. At Swawlambi Nagar, he stops to address the crowd. He calls out a worker. “Meeratai, namaskar. She is our old worker from here,” he says, bringing a broad smile to the woman’s face.
The three-hour roadshow ends near Lokmat Square, where Gadkari disembarks from the open vehicle and returns to his own car and drives home. After lunch and a brief nap, he has to go for corner meetings in some areas still left out.
But, he concedes, he has not been able to fully dedicate himself to Nagpur. “Over the past few days, in the afternoons, I had to fly by chopper to other places in Vidarbha to campaign for my party colleagues before returning in the evening to continue the Nagpur drive.” Gadkari had raised many an eyebrow when he chose to campaign for Ashok Nete in Gadchiroli when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his first rally at Wardha on April 1.
He had every reason to be happy with the response on Monday. On Sunday, pictures of empty seats at a public meeting in south Nagpur addressed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had gone viral.
On Tuesday, the last day of campaigning for the April 11 election, Gadkari will end with a rally to be addressed by party chief Amit Shah, his only big campaigner. Clearly, Gadkari wants to be the sole owner of his expected victory.