The Sunday Profile | A Maharashtra rerun, and the Comeback Man: Devendra Fadnavis

AT 51, Devendra Fadnavis is younger than the number of years Sharad Pawar has spent in electoral politics. Last week, the BJP leader achieved the near impossible in Maharashtra by outsmarting the grand old man of state politics and stealing power from right under his nose.

Pawar, as reported by this paper, didn’t mince his words asking how both his NCP’s Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil and Shiv Sena Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had no whiff of the brewing rebellion. However, if Uddhav clearly lost the plot when it comes to the Sena, the script couldn’t have gone better for one man, Devendra Fadnavis.

The surprise CM of 2014, the surprise loser of 2019, the BJP leader seems now just a few last steps back at the podium.

Fadnavis would also justifiably see the developments as sweet revenge after the power play following the 2019 hung results that hadly boomeranged on him spectacular — in a night of skullduggery executed to perfection by Pawar. After the BJP, with 105 MLAs, lost ally Sena and power to its alliance with the Congress and NCP, neither of whom got more than half its seats, the knives had been out for Fadnavis.

Few expected him to bounce back. Certainly given detractors, who saw Fadnavis as the usurper placed from above.

Insiders talk of Fadnavis’s bitterness at the Sena’s move. After the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, he reportedly said at a party function in private: “Chot dil mein lagi hai (It is my heart that has been struck). It is not so much about losing the CM post, but the manner in which the Sena betrayed us that has left us wounded. I am not sure if it can be forgiven so easily.”

That sting can be felt in the ongoing clinical slicing away of almost all the Sena MLAs from Uddhav, in an operation that has the BJP’s fingerprints if not active hand. BJP leaders have been in the forefront ushering the rebels, while party-ruled states have sheltered them.

As for Fadnavis, having learned his lesson from last time, he has kept in the background, not speaking much but leaving no doubt about who is doing the talking.

State BJP chief Chandrakant Patil says Fadnavis keeps his cards close to his chest. “I have worked with him closely. Only he can devise strategies and take up the biggest challenge with ease.”

One of those came right after the 2019 reversal of fortunes when the central leadership dealt him a snub by promoting two leaders he had sidelined. Vinod Tawde and Chandrashakhar Bawankule, sitting ministers who had been denied Assembly tickets in 2019, apparently at Fadnavis’s behest, were accommodated as a national general secretary and MLC, respectively.

He also earned Delhi’s censure for the acquisition of the in-demand Remdesivir for distribution during the pandemic, in the BJP’s personal capacity, though rules allowed only the state government to do so.

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But Fadnavis has been preparing the ground to make the long climb back. For the past two-and-a-half years, he has been roaming the state, apparently doing a full tour thrice, earning the grass-roots stripes lacking in his resume, pushing through even after Covid took over, waiting to strike.

He also kept his doors open. While leaders such as Praveen Darekar, Prasad Lad, Abhimanyu Pawar and Atul Bhatkhalkar are seen as close to him, he did not encourage a coterie. Though, not everyone agrees about this. A BJP office-bearer accuses Fadnavis of “promoting outsiders”. “This has upset lot of people.” According to this BJP leader, Fadnavis’s style is clearly reminiscent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, who is said to like him: “One-man show.”

But the tours ensured that Fadnavis kept the BJP organization ticking, even while he remained in the news with his constant, aggressive attacks on the MVA government in the Assembly as the Leader of Opposition. In the phone-tapping case in which senior police officer Rashmi Shukla is an accused, Fadnavis claims to have been the whistleblower. He was also instrumental in charges that former home minister Anil Deshmukh and NCP minister Nawab Malik are facing.

On the side, the tempo was raised on hot-button Hindutva issues, to put the Sena on the defensive over its new-found “moderate” partners. The Hanuman Chalisa bullet, seen as fired by the BJP from the shoulders of the MNS, was one such example. The Sena took the bait, defending itself as the real proponent of Hindutva and, as it turns out, giving a handle to the rebels to beat it with.

The Hindutva issue also put the spotlight on the glaring disparities within the MVA coalition. The cases against MVA leaders by Central agencies, meanwhile, kept up the pressure. At least three Sena rebel MLAs are facing cases.

Lad, a BJP vice-president, talks of Fadnavis’s emergence as a leader in his own right in the Opposition. “He leads from the front, takes up challenges, delivers results.”

A senior Congress leader requesting anonymity also acknowledges this, if grudgingly. “Fadnavis is a good administrator… But when it comes to politics, his aggression is not done. You can’t be in constant war mode.”

Congress chief spokesperson Atul Londe also talks of a “change” in Fadnavis since 2014. “He has molded himself after Modi, brought a different culture to state politics,” Londe says, claiming that the “cordial” nature of before is now gone.

A former NCP minister who claims friendly ties with Fadnavis says he too was surprised by this new aggression, particularly on issues such as Hanuman Chalisa.

Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar warns Fadnavis against “the politics of vendetta scripted by the Center being pursued by its state units across”. “Fadnavis should know this is detrimental for a healthy democracy.”

For now, the former CM is unlikely to be deterred by such niceties.

Even the face of the Sena rebellion, Eknath Shinde, may not be coincidental. Fadnavis is believed to have assiduously cultivated the old Sena hand. Their bonding goes back to 2014, and Fadnavis is said to have wanted Shinde to join the BJP.

The last of the aces were delivered in the recent Rajya Sabha and Legislative Council polls, when the BJP managed to secure the victory of all its candidates, securing votes from MLAs of the beleaguered, and explanation-less, MVA partners. The realpolitiking even earned Fadnavis a nod of approval from Pawar, who acknowledged his “miracle” in “weaning away Independents, smaller parties”.

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Questioned about how he adjusted to the role of Opposition after being the CM, Fadnavis is fond of saying: “I always saw my real identity as that of a BJP karyakarta. If one follows that, all one does is carry out whatever assignment comes one’s way.”

BJP general secretary Shrikant Bharatiya has no doubt about that — or what is to follow. “When it comes to dedication and hard work, nobody can beat Fadnavis. It is this single-minded mission which draws workers across regions towards him. Irrespective of his post, one constant factor was this hard work,” he says, adding: “The party karyakartas who are walking in and out of the party headquarters in Mumbai have voted their sentiment — Yes, Fadnavis is set to return as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.”


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