Mumbai: The Union cabinet reshuffle Wednesday, which catapulted four new faces from Maharashtra to national politics, has shown that former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis still enjoys significant political clout within the BJP and is integral to the party’s plans for Maharashtra.
This is because, according to political observers, the choice of the four leaders — Narayan Rane as a cabinet minister, and Bharati Pawar, Kapil Patil and Bhagwat Karad as ministers of state — bears the stamp of Fadnavis’s preference.
While there had been speculations about Fadnavis moving to the Union cabinet as well, especially in the backdrop of recent meetings between Shiv Sena and BJP leaders and talks of a thaw in their relations, BJP leaders in Maharashtra say Fadnavis is still too important for the party’s plans for Maharashtra.
Also, a few days before the cabinet reshuffle, the former CM had himself cleared the air on his possible Cabinet inclusion, and said that there was no need for him to move to the Centre at present.
The importance of keeping Fadnavis in Maharashtra
Fadnavis’s rise as the face of the BJP in Maharashtra started in 2013, with his elevation to the position of the state party president. At the time, the late Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari had been trying to push their own candidates for the post.
The central leadership was believed to have picked Fadnavis, as he visibly belonged to no camp and was polite and accommodating.
By the end of his term as chief minister in 2019, he was undeniably the face of the BJP in the state. This was aided by Munde’s death in an accident in 2014 and Gadkari’s withdrawal from state politics, to play a more active role at the Centre.
Party sources say Fadnavis temporarily lost favour with Modi-Shah after the BJP could not form government in Maharashtra after the 2019 assembly polls and the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) came to power, but by and large, he still has the leadership’s ear.
A senior BJP leader who did not wish to be named said, “There are constant reports of instability in the MVA, only because of Fadnavis, and the leadership knows that. No other leader right now can make the government squirm like this.”
Political commentator Hemant Desai told ThePrint that “the fight in Maharashtra (at present) is more Uddhav Thackeray versus Fadnavis, than the Shiv Sena versus BJP”.
“If Fadnavis goes to the Union cabinet, there is no strong pan-Maharashtra face in the state to give the Shiv Sena a fight. The popularity of other (state BJP) leaders such as Girish Mahajan, Pankaja Munde or even Chandrakant Patil is limited to their districts.”
Fadnavis stamp on cabinet picks from Maharashtra
Rane, a Rajya Sabha MP from Sindhudurg, and Bharati Pawar, a Lok Sabha MP from the Nashik district, both joined the BJP when Fadnavis was Maharashtra CM, and had already transitioned to being the face of the party in the state.
Rane, who started his political career with the Shiv Sena, before moving to the Congress, came on board in 2017, when he had just quit the Congress and formed his own party (Maharashtra Swabhiman Paksha, which he merged with the BJP in 2019), aligning himself with the NDA. A staunch critic of the Shiv Sena, he was brought to the BJP, for the same reasons that he was promoted to the Union cabinet — to keep the Shiv Sena, then an acrimonious ruling coalition partner of the BJP, in check, and to expand the BJP’s influence in the Sena’s turf of Konkan, Rane’s home territory.
Pawar, originally a member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), joined the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the presence of Fadnavis.
Party insiders say Pawar was also among the party leaders elevated to significant administrative roles in the state BJP in 2020. She was made one of the state party vice presidents, along with other NCP turncoats, such as Prasad Lad and Chitra Wagh.
Kapil Patil, an MP from Bhiwandi in the Thane district, has also been a Fadnavis loyalist. “He is the first Union minister from the district, which has been a stronghold of the Shiv Sena. This will definitely help the BJP,” said the BJP leader quoted above, who didn’t wish to be named.
Karad over Munde
Bhagwat Karad, the fourth Maharashtra BJP leader to make the move to the Union government Wednesday, is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Vanjari community, included among Other Backward Classes (OBC). Within the BJP, this community has been largely represented by Gopinath Munde’s family.
On Wednesday, before the list of the new council of ministers was formally announced, several BJP sources had felt that Pritam Munde, Gopinath Munde’s daughter and a Lok Sabha MP, would likely make the cut. However, Karad was chosen instead.
Pankaja Munde, Gopinath Munde’s other daughter, who is active in state politics, has often been at odds with Fadnavis. At a rally in her home district of Beed in December 2019, she practically led a revolt against Fadnavis, but had stopped short of naming him.
The fact that neither Pritam nor Pankaja Munde made any public statements or tweets congratulating their BJP colleagues for their inclusion in the Union government, triggered talks of the Munde sisters being upset and feeling snubbed.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Fadnavis, however, tried to play down the situation.
“Who said Pritam Munde is unhappy?” he asked. “In BJP our senior leadership makes decisions from time to time. Nobody gets unhappy because of it.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)