Mumbai: On the eve of the 2009 assembly elections in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis was a young achiever — a two-term cerebral MLA who showed ample potential. Five years later, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began campaigning for the 2014 elections, Fadnavis had risen to become the state party president but was just one among several aspirants for the chief minister’s post.
Now, as the BJP prepares to launch its poll campaign for this year’s assembly election, Fadnavis, set to be only the second chief minister to complete a full term in Maharashtra, is the single undisputed face of the party in the state.
Starting 1 August, Fadnavis will lead the BJP’s month-long ‘Maha Janadesh Yatra’, sitting in a special rath(chariot)-like van with an LED screen to showcase the state government’s achievements. The CM will spend most of August in travelling 4,384 km across 32 districts of Maharashtra, covering 150 of the 288 assembly segments in the state, addressing 85 major rallies and 75 smaller ones as he meets with people from across 238 villages in the state.
From being the youngest Nagpur councillor, the corporation’s second-youngest mayor to the most powerful leader of one the largest and richest states, Fadnavis has had phenomenal political growth. He initially benefited from the internal factionalism within the BJP state unit and later when he found himself at the right place at the right time, used his political astuteness to cement his position to a point where he is now on track to be only the second CM to be able to complete a full term in the state. The first being the Congress’ Vasantdada Patil.
Beneficiary of the Munde-Gadkari rivalry
While Fadnavis’ political laurels, his image of being an erudite legislator and a fierce opposition MLA helped him grow, certain political situations also catapulted his career. One was the well-known rivalry between two Maharashtra BJP factions — one led by the late Gopinath Munde and the other by Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways of India & Shipping and Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises.
Fadnavis’ elevation as state BJP president in 2013 was mainly because he visibly belonged to neither camp. Back then, the Gadkari faction worked hard to ensure that Munde, already a powerful leader during whose heydays the BJP gathered strength in Maharashtra, does not become the state unit president. The Gadkari faction had insisted on a second term for incumbent BJP president Sudhir Mungantiwar, who was from the coterie.
Munde, on the other hand, backed Fadnavis and the central BJP leadership eventually picked him as a consensus candidate known to be polite and accommodating.
During his tenure as the state BJP president, said political commentator Hemant Desai, Fadnavis earned the trust of the central BJP leadership, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“He did not show any personal ambition but worked taking both the Munde and the Gadkari factions along. He never once spoke about his aspirations to be the CM or anything else. When leaders like Eknath Khadse were vocal about their ambition to be the CM, Fadnavis chose to refrain from making any comments and quietly do his work,” Desai said, adding that post the 2014 state legislative assembly election, Modi preferred a new face in Maharashtra and Fadnavis was the right candidate as he was from Vidarbha in favour of statehood for the region as well as a Brahmin face, two things that only the BJP could give in Maharashtra.
“Situationally, Munde’s death in 2014 and Modi’s rise also hastened Fadnavis’ surge in the party,” Desai added. “He would have not become CM had Munde been alive or if leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani were still at the helm.”
Over his term as CM, Fadnavis has steadily developed an image of being an administrator cut in the mould of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Union government recently appointed him as the convenor of a panel of CMs from across the country to discuss agriculture reforms.
“The CM has the prime minister’s ear. This has helped the state government get several projects and proposals fast-tracked at the Centre, whether it is aid for drought relief or major infrastructure works,” a senior Maharashtra government official who did not wish to be named said. Modi is also likely to attend the concluding event of Fadnavis’ ‘Maha Janadesh Yatra’.
In 2014, when the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in Maharashtra, a section of BJP MLAs camped outside Gadkari’s Nagpur residence, insisting that he become the CM. By then, Gadkari who had months ago won his first Lok Sabha election was already a minister in the Modi cabinet.
Senior journalist Kumar Ketkar, who is now a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, back then wrote that Modi was always going to favour Fadnavis. “There was no ‘race’ between Gadkari and Fadnavis. Modi could not have chosen Gadkari, who thought of himself as the ‘original development man’. Modi could not have created a parallel power centre,” Ketkar wrote. “The chief minister of Maharashtra, by virtue of being in Mumbai, is automatically part of the corporate world. Gadkari is savvy with the wheeling-dealings of the stock market and the business community. That itself is seen by the Modi-Shah duo as a threat to their desire to control all levers of power across the country.”
Fadnavis as CM
Fadnavis’ tenure as CM began with a number of challenges — some of which like the Maratha agitation and trouble with ally Shiv Sena brewed to a boil. The CM, however, ensured that he turned the tide in his favour.
Caste emerged as a flashpoint for the current Maharashtra administration with the Maratha agitation for reservation in jobs and education and the Bhima Koregaon violence and Fadnavis’ Brahmin identity threatened to politically isolate him. Fadnavis has been only the second Brahmin to occupy the top post in Maharashtra after Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi, who was the chief minister between 1995 and 1999.
These issues, however, never electorally affected the BJP as the party aggressively grew its footprint across Maharashtra — winning big in municipal council, corporation as well as Zilla Parishad elections, to ultimately repeating its strong performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election too. In all these polls, it was Fadnavis who led the BJP from the front, addressing campaign rallies across Maharashtra.
“He has proved his political capability beyond doubt in these five years. He turned the Maratha agitation in the BJP’s favour, quietly ensured that he has more of his people on his cabinet and dropping leaders like Eknath Khadse, who could have proved to be a challenge to his leadership, and dealt astutely with the Shiv Sena while ensuring that the BJP’s growth in the state doesn’t suffer,” said a BJP leader who did not wish to be named.
“At this point, Fadnavis is the one face of the BJP with whom absolutely everyone, from people across the state to our allies, can identify with,” he added.