Governance has been a mixed bag but with political winds blowing in BJP’s favour, CM Devendra Fadnavis is gung-ho as he enters final year of his term.
Mumbai: “There is no deadline till the line is dead,” Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told ThePrint as he sought to scotch speculation about the death of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) alliance with its oldest ally, the Shiv Sena.
“I am on a very positive note on this,” he said in an interview Sunday, three days before his government completes four years in office.
“We want to contest the Lok Sabha and the Maharashtra assembly polls together. In politics, there is nothing like a deadline, political reality decides,” he added.
Fadnavis, who has the reputation of being an administrator in the mould of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appears upbeat about his government’s performance on every yardstick, but his optimism about the BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena beats it all.
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Although still officially partners, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have had an uneasy relationship since the 2014 assembly elections, which they contested independently before joining hands to sew together a fractured mandate.
The Shiv Sena, which has attacked the BJP on a host of issues, including the Ram Temple and demonetisation, has gone on the record to say it will contest the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections on its own strength.
“The Shiv Sena does not have any naraazgi (resentment) as such,” Fadnavis, 48, told ThePrint. “Otherwise the government would not have functioned well. But after all, it is a different party and also has political ambitions.”
Fadnavis’ remarks come days after Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray singled out Hindutva as his party’s primary agenda and strongly demanded the construction of the contentious Ram temple in Ayodhya, announcing his plans to visit the city in November-end.
Fadnavis said this bode well for their alliance in 2019 polls.
“Until now, we were talking about the Ram Mandir. It is a good thing that Uddhav Thackeray is also strongly supporting the cause now,” the chief minister said.
As state president of the BJP, Fadnavis said, he had already put in place an exercise to develop booth-level cadres of the party across the state, adding that, as such, the party was ready to contest all seats independently too.
“But I think an alliance should happen,” he said. “Hindutva votes should not be divided.”
Face of BJP in Maharashtra
Fadnavis, who started his political career as a ward president of the BJP’s youth wing, has had tall political ambitions and a sharp growth curve.
Over the past two decades, he has galloped from being the youngest corporator in Nagpur to the city’s second-youngest mayor to state president of the BJP, a four-term MLA, and eventually the second-youngest chief minister of Maharashtra at the age of 44. (The youngest was Sharad Pawar, now the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party, when he became CM in 1978 at age 38).
If Fadnavis completes his five-year term, he will be only the second chief minister of Maharashtra after the Congress’ Vasantrao Naik to have done so.
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Over the past four years, Fadnavis has campaigned aggressively to spread the BJP’s footprint in Maharashtra, grown to be the face of the party in the state, and also positioned his chief minister’s office to firmly drive the state administration.
Among other things, Fadnavis is known to have astutely dealt with his party’s difficult ally, the Shiv Sena. He shares a cordial personal relationship with Thackeray and has shared the stage with the Sena chief like an old friend even at times when the BJP-Sena relations have been at their most turbulent.
“A good case in point is when the BJP won just two seats less than the Shiv Sena in the 2017 Mumbai civic polls,” an official from Fadnavis’ team said. “The party could have easily snatched control of the civic body and installed its own mayor. But having proven his point that the BJP has equal strength as the Sena in Mumbai, Fadnavis instead held a press conference to relinquish its claims on the mayor’s post.”
Even now, the BJP, in some ways, realises the political benefit of contesting the 2019 polls in alliance with the Shiv Sena, with the opposition Congress and the NCP, too, in the process of hammering out an agreement.
“We are willing to discuss seat-sharing for both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections in advance if the Shiv Sena wants,” Fadnavis told ThePrint. “We want to contest both elections in an alliance.”
‘Caste-based protests not peculiar to Maharashtra’
Caste has emerged as a flashpoint for the current Maharashtra administration, with Fadnavis often targeted by different groups for being a Brahmin chief minister — only the second Brahmin to occupy the top post in Maharashtra after Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi from 1995 to 1999.
The several caste-based protests and clashes in the state over the past two years, including Bhima-Koregaon, have made the caste polarisations even starker.
Fadnavis, also Maharashtra’s home minister, had to deal with a wave of silent protests by Maratha groups seeking reservation, and later street violence from members of the same community.
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There have been protests by members of the Dalit community, and a brewing Maratha-Dalit clash that worsened after the 1 January Bhima-Koregaon violence, with the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslims also taking to the streets.
“Caste-based divisions are not a new phenomenon,” Fadnavis told ThePrint. “They have been there in small or big measure ever since the Mandal Commission report in all states.
“Moreover, post-globalisation, the situation has changed, the face of employment has changed,” he added. “There is some resentment among those who were left out. Some of their demands are valid and the government will look into them.”
The Maharashtra government faced its harshest criticism from across the country over the arrest of 10 activists for alleged Maoist links in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
Fadnavis, however, said the government had strong evidence against them. “We have more evidence now in this case than what the state had presented to get the conviction of G.N. Saibaba,” he added.
The wheel-chair bound Saibaba, a former Delhi University professor, was arrested on the charge of aiding Naxals on 9 May 2014. A Gadchiroli sessions court convicted him on 7 March 2017, under various sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is meant to punish terrorism and acts deemed detrimental to India’s sovereignty.
‘Clean chit for graft only after inquiry’
Another major challenge for the Fadnavis administration has been the graft allegations against more than half a dozen cabinet ministers, with the chief minister developing an image of giving each of them a “clean chit”.
The ministers in question include the BJP’s Pankaja Munde, Eknath Khadse, Prakash Mehta, Vinod Tawde, Vishnu Savra, Subhash Deshmukh, and Jaikumar Rawal, and the Shiv Sena’s Deepak Sawant, Subhash Deshmukh, and Ravindra Waikar.
Talking to ThePrint, Fadnavis belted out — for half an hour, like the studious legislator he is known to be — statistics to emphasise how his government had done better than the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) administration in every sector.
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Fadnavis said the difference between the previous government and his is that “this government responds when there are allegations and conducts an inquiry”.
“After inquiries, if they are not found guilty, people say this government gives clean chits,” he added.
So far, only former revenue minister Khadse, a senior BJP politician also known to have chief ministerial ambitions, has been made to resign over allegations of conflict of interest in land transactions made by his family. A subsequent inquiry, however, gave Khadse a clean chit too.
Since last year, there has been speculation about a cabinet reshuffle that would see a few of the tainted and non-performing ministers dropped.
Fadnavis’ fifth and final year is likely to begin on this note. Speaking to ThePrint, Fadnavis confirmed that a cabinet rejig was very much on the cards, saying it should happen soon.