Devendra Fadnavis – Chief Minister Who Changed Politics in Maharashtra


New Delhi: 

Few outside Maharashtra had heard of Devendra Fadnavis when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah handpicked him five years ago for the post of Chief Minister. The 49-year-old, a compromise candidate in a power tussle that had vexed the BJP, became one of the youngest Chief Ministers of Maharashtra.

He has scored rich praise not just from Amit Shah, but also from Mohan Bhagwat, the all-powerful chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Speaking at an election rally, Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, said he had “never seen anyone work” like Mr Fadnavis.

“Fadnavis is younger than me, but I want to say that I have never seen someone like Fadnavis, who has worked day and night for the development of Maharashtra. Whenever I get a call, I understand that it would be a call from Fadnavis and he must be concerned about Maharashtra’s business, Maharashtra’s youngsters, Maharashtra’s farmers etc. and because of this Maharashtra has developed a lot,” Mr Shah said.

JP Nadda, the working president of BJP, went a step further. “Today I can say with authority and confidence that Devendra Fadnavis has changed the political culture of Maharashtra. He has changed the basic fundamentals of politics in Maharashtra,” he declared.

Many will agree with the assessment that Devendra Fadnavis has changed politics in Maharashtra.

His potential rivals within the BJP seem diminished and his carefully-selected team of bureaucrats and younger faces of the BJP in the state have firmly put him in the driver’s seat.

He is also credited with decimating the opposition by engineering defection in hordes from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar and even the Congress, to some extent.

He managed belligerent and sharply critical ally Shiv Sena and came out unscathed. Mostly, he ignored all provocation and got his own back by outdoing the Sena in elections. Contesting the civic elections solo and winning big, he put an end to the Sena’s dreams of continuing as the big brother in the alliance. The national election results in Maharashtra reinforced the BJP’s primacy.

But in victory, Mr Fadnavis was both gracious and politically savvy, insisting on continuing the tie-up for the state elections despite opposition from a section of his party leaders.

Mr Fadnavis was born in a Brahmin family of social activists and has a deep RSS connection. His father Gangadharrao was member of the state legislative council.

Often seen in casuals, he stayed close to the image of an austere politician, living in an MLA hostel, standing in queue to buy tickets, and flying economy to Nagpur and paying for his own ticket weeks after taking oath in 2014, as Maharashtra struggled with a Rs 3 lakh crore loan.

During the tenure of the Congress and NCP government, the three-time legislator emerged as one of the most outspoken and aggressive members in the opposition benches. In Nagpur, where he was a rising star, his elevation as the state’s Chief Minister in the event of a BJP victory was a foregone conclusion.

Sharad Pawar’s iron grip on Maharashtra, unparalleled for years, has been loosening. There is a new powerhouse and that is Devendra Fadnavis.

Since Vasantarao Naik, who was in office from 1963 to 1975, no other chief minister has completed a full five year term in Maharashtra. It’s not that Fadnavis has not faced challenges within his party or outside. But he has managed each challenge and more importantly, done so without making a production of it.

This election, Mr Fadnavis has taken on NCP chief Sharad Pawar multiple times even as comparisons are being drawn between them. The Opposition has accused him of using intimidation tactics, but the ever-smiling Chief Minister hasn’t planted a foot out of line.

Mr Fadnavis set up a war room soon after taking office to monitor progress of large infrastructure projects that are under construction in various parts of Mumbai. Every project is tracked by the team. The Chief Minister’s War Room on the top floor of the Mantralaya has been set up specially for speeding up important infrastructure projects that have seen inordinate delays. Mr Fadnavis is now seen as the Chief Minister who is rebuilding Maharashtra.

His tenure hasn’t been without controversies. Fadnavis has been described by several senior BJP leaders as ‘meethi chhuri’– loosely translated, it means a silent enemy — for his ability to strike back at his political opponents without any overt display of indignation and or abrasiveness.

When Mr Fadnavis took office in 2014, there were several contenders who could challenge him and perhaps even overthrow him. Earlier this year, he took out a state-wide tour which was called the Maha Jan Aadesh Yatra. During the tour, this correspondent managed to track his speeches closely. Mr Fadnavis spoke of projects during his tenure, while repeatedly pointing out how the previous Congress-NCP government had failed to push these projects. One had a glimpse of how smoothly he can put down his political opponents. Mr Fadnavis was addressing a Press conference in Nagpur, his hometown. He was asked to respond to a comment by new Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Dada Patil that the party will decide who will be Chief Minister and “if the party decides I can be Chief Minister.”

Mr Fadnavis’s terse response was, ‘That is decided by our MLAs and central leadership. Right now I am the Chief Minister and he has just been given the post of state president, so let him settle down there. With your blessings I will be Chief Minister again.” Since then, Chandrakant Patil hasn’t repeated the comment.

He convinced the Sena to settle for fewer seats to ensure the alliance was on. He has managed to keep a rapport with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, which helps him keep lines of communication open with the Sena at all times.

What has also helped Mr Fadnavis cement his position is his handling of the Maratha protests and the farmers’ agitations. Having been able to deliver a quota for the Marathas in some form, he successfully pacified the restive Maratha community. He dispatched trusted aide Girish Mahajan to bring farmers who marched from Nashik to Mumbai to the table. Mahajan himself joined the march and convinced them to reach the Mantralaya and a solution was eventually thrashed out.

But Mr Fadnavis can’t afford to the complacent. His biggest challenge will be to live up to the task he has set himself up for.

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