Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had his Bharatiya Janata Party colleagues sit up in amazement and dismay last week.
During an interaction with the Loksatta editorial team, he was asked about his initial reluctance to join the Eknath Shinde-led government. ‘Was it because he wanted to join the Union Cabinet?’ He said that he was a former chief minister and didn’t want to look desperate to be in power.
But what caught his party colleagues’ attention was his explanation: “I took that stand. My party first accepted it and then changed its opinion. There is no reason for me to go to the Centre. Nobody can send me there.”
“Nobody can send him out of Maharashtra! Can’t believe he said that! In our party, you say that you will do whatever Modiji and Amitbhai decide. Devendra is showing guts,” a BJP MP told me.
Some in the BJP found his remark ‘insolent’. Others saw it as ‘chutzpah’ in a party where leaders don’t start or end a sentence without referring to ‘Modi ji’ or ‘Amit bhai’. But Fadnavis, Modi’s pick as Maharashtra chief minister in 2014, is not known to mince his words.
After grudgingly accepting the party’s decision to make him deputy chief minister, he disclosed that Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda had called him to join the Shinde-led government, but he accepted it only after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him.
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‘Impressed’ Mohan Bhagwat
What’s behind Fadnavis’ latest assertion about not shifting out of Maharashtra? In public perception, he is the de facto CM and the BJP high command’s point person in the Maharashtra government. In reality, Shinde is gradually taking control. It was his policy initiatives and pronouncements that triggered a fresh Karnataka-Maharashtra border row.
Fadnavis had to play along even though the move may hurt the BJP’s prospects in poll-bound Karnataka. But Shinde couldn’t care less. Inclusion of Karnataka’s Marathi-speaking areas in Maharashtra was an issue that first catapulted Bal Thackeray as the mover and shaker of Mumbai.
In December 1968, Thackeray declared that no leader from New Delhi would be allowed in Mumbai if the Marathi-speaking areas were not ceded to Maharashtra by 26 January of the following year.
When deputy prime minister Morarji Desai landed in Mumbai in 1969, Shiv Sainiks created mayhem in the city. Thackeray was arrested but the Congress government at the time had to capitulate and buy peace with him.
Seventeen years later, Shinde was arrested over the same issue in Belgaum, and he spent 40 days in Bellary jail. Today, when he is locked in a battle with Uddhav for Bal Thackeray’s legacy, Shinde must make the right noises over those Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka. Shinde is acting like the de facto and de jure chief minister. Fadnavis can’t do much except extend support in running the government.
Shinde’s stocks in Delhi and Nagpur are growing rapidly. A Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena (BSS) parliamentarian told me that Modi and Amit Shah now call Shinde directly to discuss the state of affairs. He, however, hastened to add that the equations between the CM and his deputy are “very warm and cordial” and they work “very much together”.
According to a BJP functionary, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat is “very impressed” with Shinde and has been telling his colleagues how “very good” the new CM is.
Shinde is a Maratha and his rising stocks in the Sangh Parivar may not comfort many in the state BJP.
The Sena parliamentarian maintained that the immediate goal of both his party and the BJP is to “finish Uddhav Thackeray”. He was dismissive about the commonly held belief that if and when Uddhav’s hold over the Shiv Sainiks is broken, the BJP would move next to appropriate Bal Thackeray’s entire political legacy, leaving neither Shinde nor Uddhav as stakeholders.
“Our immediate goal is to finish the Thackerays. We aren’t thinking about anything more. And don’t underestimate Eknath Shinde. If he can take away 55 MPs and MLAs right from under Uddhav Thackeray’s nose, he certainly knows his politics, doesn’t he?” the Sena MP said.
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Ambitions or insecurities?
BJP functionaries are already looking at various possibilities in the distant future. What if Shinde, a Maratha, becomes the BJP’s face one day? A long shot, obviously, but food for thought nonetheless – just enough to keep ambitious BJP leaders on the edge. Wild speculations and conjectures aside, the Fadnavis of 2022 doesn’t look the same as the one we saw from 2014 to 2019. He used to be a voice of progress, reason and modernity.
Fadnavis as the CM wouldn’t care if there were raised eyebrows in the Sangh about his wife, Amruta, walking the ramp at New York Fashion Week. Though an RSS activist since his student days, he wouldn’t get into polarising debates.
Today, Fadnavis is making headlines, defending the formation of a committee to track inter-faith marriages and talking about the so-called ‘love jihad’. When a BJP CM (or deputy CM in this case) starts shedding his moderate image to project himself as a Hindutva hardliner, you know from experience what’s happening. It’s invariably about ambitions or insecurities. So, if it’s the first in the case of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the second category includes CMs like Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh) and Basavaraj Bommai (Karnataka).
It may be premature to put Fadnavis in either of the boxes yet.
In November 2021, the BJP high command gave fodder to conspiracy theorists by promoting Vinod Tawde as national general secretary and nominating Chandrashekhar Bawankule to the Legislative Council.
Both Tawde and Bawankule had been denied party tickets in the 2019 assembly election in what was then the Fadnavis era in Maharashtra.
Six months later, an unwilling Fadnavis was forced to accept the post of deputy CM and play second fiddle to Shinde. Weeks later, Bawankule was promoted as Maharashtra BJP chief and he has everyone scratching his head in bewilderment with his oft-repeated wish to see Fadnavis back as the CM. Notwithstanding the BJP chief’s intent, he doesn’t seem to be helping the former Maharashtra CM’s cause in today’s context.
A fortnight ago, PM Modi inaugurated the first leg of the 701-km-long Mumbai-Nagpur expressway. A week before that, Shinde tweeted a video of Fadnavis behind the wheels in his car with the CM in the passenger seat.
In the Maharashtra political circles, it was seen as a clear message. Eknath Shinde, formerly an auto-rickshaw driver, would, however, know that the man behind the wheels doesn’t necessarily decide the destination.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum)