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Devendra Fadnavis emerges as BJP’s new poster boy

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-02-2017 Abhiram Ghadyalpatil

Mumbai: A day after he completed 25 years in politics, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis achieved yet another milestone: a sweep of the local body polls in the state.

The results of the civic and zilla parishad polls on 23 February, which showed his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the single-largest party in terms of number of seats, are being seen as a mandate for Fadnavis almost midway through his tenure as chief minister. Political functionaries, including those from the opposition Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and Shiv Sena, and analysts agree that the main winner of this election is Fadnavis. Even a leader of the Shiv Sena, which personally targeted Fadnavis during the campaign, admitted on condition of anonymity that by “concentrating on Fadnavis, Sena chief Uddhav saheb and NCP president Sharad Pawar had allowed him to become a big fighter who won the day not only for himself but for his party.” 

A Congress leader, who led the campaign against Fadnavis, made a telling remark. “Fadnavis was not the tallest BJP leader in the state in October 2014 even though he was made the chief minister by (Prime Minister) Modi. These elections have made him the tallest leader by some distance now. It won’t be easy to challenge him henceforth,” said the Congress leader requesting anonymity. 

This is quite a significant outcome of this election and the polls to 212 municipal bodies across Maharashtra during November-January, where too the BJP emerged the single-largest party. More so in the context of the developments in Maharashtra since Fadnavis was made chief minister.

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Most political functionaries including some in the BJP considered him a “Modi-appointee” who lacked popular support, seniority and authority as the chief minister of a big state like Maharashtra. That he is a Brahmin—only the second Brahmin to become the chief minister of Maharashtra where the Marathas and OBCs account for nearly 80% of the population—was also seen as Fadnavis’s handicap. 

The caste handicap indeed became an issue, though in a subtle, unstated but strong manner, when in August last year the Marathas started organizing massive protest marches making several demands, including reservations.

“Though organizers of this protest never said on the record that they wanted BJP to drop Fadnavis, there were clear hints to this effect. At one point when the Maratha morchas started becoming really big, not-so-subtle suggestions were made to the BJP leadership in Delhi that if they removed Fadnavis, a lot of unrest would wither away,” said a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader from Nagpur who is also part of the state BJP, seeking anonymity.

The RSS leader pointed out how Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule had frequently hit “below the belt” by their “snide remarks at the fact that Fadnavis was a Brahmin ruling over the Marathas”. “We feel sorry for Pawar who at such a ripe old age resorted to caste politics and got punished in these elections as people chose Fadnavis not for his caste but in spite of his caste for his development agenda,” said the RSS leader.

While Fadnavis has some rivals within the state BJP who sulk silently about his “sudden and providential rise” due to the demise of Gopinath Munde who was most likely to become chief minister, even these rivals now concede that the “luck factor” in Fadnavis’s growth has lost much of its legitimacy now.

“We can no longer deny that Fadnavis is the chief minister on his own merit and hard work in the last two years. It is true that he rose suddenly after Munde saheb’s death and got appointed chief minister. But he has strengthened his position in two years,” said a senior BJP minister in Maharashtra who fancied the top job for himself, and who did not wish to be named. 

A Fadnavis loyalist in the state BJP unit was more assertive. “In 2014, Fadnavis was considered and appointed chief minister. Today, he has all the reasons to be considered an elected chief minister. We can fight and win an assembly election under his leadership today,” the loyalist said, requesting anonymity. He pointed out that the assembly elections in 2014 were also fought under Fadnavis’s leadership as state BJP president. “One cannot argue that he was not in contention for the chief minister’s post. He led the party to victory and was the natural choice for the top job,” he said. 

Veteran political scientist and commentator Suhas Palshikar says the civic and zilla parishad election results have made Fadnavis stronger. “Given that the BJP fought these elections with a singular focus on the chief minister, the results make him stronger. Fadnavis was also able to run this election battle on issues of clean governance and development,” Palshikar said.

Coincidentally, on the same day Fadnavis completed his 25th year in politics, another Maharashtra politician completed his 50th. That was Sharad Pawar, a three-time chief minister, and former Union defence and agriculture minister. Whether Fadnavis will prove as durable as the elder politician, only time will tell.

Palshikar says Fadnavis has successfully handled the Maratha issue. “This is partly because the Marathas are willing to side with BJP and Maratha elite also want the BJP to protect their interests which the BJP would manage to do. What remains to be seen are three things: one, how durable networks Fadnavis can establish across the state; two, what would be intra-party competition because of Khadase and Munde etc. and three, whether Modi would like Fadnavis to grow much independently. This third aspect would be most critical,” says Palshikar.

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