India flexes its muscles at Davos as China’s star fades,” Julia Horowitz, CNN Business reporter, wrote from the ski resort town of Davos in Switzerland on 19 January. RK Singh, India’s power minister, told her: “I haven’t had to ask for investment. Investment has just flown in.” She found that confidence on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Indians who have returned from Davos talk about three things. One is, of course, RK Singh’s valiant show at a session on “Interplay of Food, Energy and Water”. When Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times columnist and co-anchor on CNBC, sought to corner India on oil imports from Russia amid its war with Ukraine, Singh virtually silenced him citing facts and figures about India’s leadership in energy transition and climate action. “I will stop imports from Russia but let European countries do it first,” Singh declared.
The second talking point in Davos was how Yoga guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar took on Pakistan’s junior foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar at a session on “Renaissance of South Asia”. When she alleged that Indian fighter jets entered Pakistani territory (Balakot air strike) in 2019 because (Lok Sabha) election “had to be won”, Shankar came with all guns blazing: “The entire world knows where terrorism is sprouting. Where was Osama bin Laden?” Hina Rabbani was grinning from ear to ear when he said he is “not from government, but from spiritual, social sector.” She looked determined not to engage in a verbal duel with a spiritual guru as she wanted to discuss his area of expertise—“meditate for peace”. Shankar wouldn’t be discouraged. He kept taking her on and defending Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
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The Shinde show
The third memory Indians have returned with from Davos is how Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde created a buzz at the WEF. Two other CMs—Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh and Basavaraj Bommai of Karnataka—and Maharashtra deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis were supposed to attend the Davos summit. But these BJP leaders attended the party’s national executive meeting in New Delhi instead. Eknath Shinde made the best of it, inking memorandums of understanding worth Rs 1.37 lakh crore. Shinde wasn’t part of any session at Davos. Yet, he was the talk of the Davos town, thanks to the MoUs. When a journalist quoted Rs 1.37 lakh crore, he told him—“It’s one hundred thirty-seven thousand crores.” Sounded more impressive, didn’t it? Maharashtra pavilion found mention in international publications like The Washington Post as it was the building site that used to be the Russian Pavilion. Back home, opposition leader Aaditya Thackeray was alleging expenditures of Rs 30-40 crore on the CM’s Davos visit.
Shinde didn’t seem to be much bothered about the opposition’s allegations when I met him in New Delhi last week. “My only aim is to make aam aadmi’s life in Mumbai and Maharashtra better and it will happen only through infrastructure development. You will see how my government will transform Mumbai and Maharashtra before we face voters in 2024,” Shinde told me. In the next 35-40 minutes of our conversation, he was listing the projects he was focused on—access-controlled expressway between Mumbai and Sindhudurg, completion of Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link in the next seven-eight months, Nagpur-Goa corridor, Pune-Nashik industrial corridor, and so on and so forth. “And when should we expect to land in Mumbai without worrying about the hours that we will spend in snarl-ups?” I asked. It will be much better before the next election, responded a confident Shinde, again listing what his government is doing for Mumbai’s decongestion— exploring the option of double-storeyed tunnels under traffic intersections, expediting Metro work that will take 50-60 lakh cars off the road, Mumbai coastal road, etc.
At a time when everyone is riveted on the fight over Bal Thackeray’s political legacy between Shinde’s and Thackeray’s Shiv Senas, the CM is working on his own branding as an administrator. He was in the Fadnavis Cabinet and then in the Thackeray Cabinet but he remained just another Shiv Sainik under Thackeray family’s tutelage. As the CM, he is coming into his own. Or so it seems from the way he talks about his governance, keeping aside questions on politics. It’s easier to dismiss his ‘vision’ for Maharashtra with the argument that many of the infrastructure projects he is citing were conceived or initiated during the Fadnavis or Uddhav government. The fact is Shinde was overseeing most of them—first as public works minister who headed the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) during the Fadnavis government and then as urban development and public works minister in the Uddhav-led government. Even as the CM, he is keeping the PW (Public Undertaking) and urban development portfolios.
It was during his tenure as Maharashtra’s public works minister (1995-99) that Nitin Gadkari came to national limelight as ‘the infrastructure man of India’ who was behind much-acclaimed Mumbai-Pune expressway and many other infrastructure projects. As public works minister since 2014, Shinde can also claim credit for Mumbai-Nagpur expressway and other infra projects even if Fadnavis was the brain behind many of them.
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Making a mark of his own
So, what does Shinde’s infra focus tell us about his politics? That he is not going to be overshadowed by Fadnavis, perceived to be the man behind the wheel in Maharashtra government. And that Shinde is not getting weighed down under the cries of ‘betrayal’ from the Uddhav camp and by the tussle to gain the Sena symbol and loyalty of the Shiv Sainiks. The CM is busy showcasing his own administrative acumen and vision for Maharashtra. The Election Commission of India is set to take a decision on the Sena’s symbol—bow and arrow—shortly. It’s obviously important for Shinde to keep his flock together and wean away others from Uddhav’s camp. It’s also crucial for his faction, the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena, in the coming Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election.
Shinde is working on a plan as he braces himself for all eventualities. He has largely deputed organisational work to five of his colleagues—Rahul Shewale, Deepak Kesarkar, Dada Bhuse, Uday Samant and Abdul Sattar. He is not bringing his parliamentarian son, Shrikant, a bright young leader, to the forefront. When you fight against dynasts, you don’t promote your own. While Shiv Sainiks are in a dilemma over their loyalty to Uddhav or Shinde, the latter is showcasing his governance model to swing their mind. Unlike Uddhav Thackeray, who was seen as inaccessible, Shinde keeps his doors open to the Sainiks. He is now working on a plan to empower the ‘shakhas’ and make them the intermediaries between the people and the government. If somebody has any demands or grievances from the government, the local Shiv Sena office will be a single window mechanism for their redressal. If Shiv Sainiks found Thackerays and their government distant, Shinde wants to be in their midst and make his government accessible to them. If Thackerays have blood relations to claim Balasaheb’s legacy, Shinde wants to showcase his work and vision to claim the same. In the process, he is also projecting himself as independent, not someone who is hanging on Fadnavis’ coattails, which many of his allies and detractors would have the people believe. Whether Shinde succeeds or not will depend on how much he is able to deliver on his promise to change aam aadmi’s life in the next 20 months or so. Shiv Sena has never had a Gadkari of its own. Shinde as Gadkari 2 is an idea that will make both Uddhav and Fadnavis sit up and take notice.
DK Singh is ThePrint’s Political Editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)