MUMBAI, Maharashtra — In August this year, as western Maharashtra was being ravaged by heavy floods, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was hundreds of kilometres away, weaving his way through the state’s eastern region, on his much-publicised “Maha Janadesh Yatra”.
The extent of the havoc wasn’t completely unexpected—local politicians, including Ulhas Patil, the Shiv Sena MLA from Kolhapur, had warned district authorities in July, and asked them to release water from dams.
But neither the district nor the state administration took his warning seriously. By the time Fadnavis suspended his yatra, because of the death of senior BJP leader and former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, the death toll from the floods had crossed double digits.
When some local journalists from Sangli questioned the chief minister about the government’s inaction, Fadnavis shot back “you’re absolutely wrong”, almost setting off a skirmish at the press conference.
For those who have closely observed the political career of Maharashtra’s second youngest chief minister—Fadnavis was only 44 when he took office in 2014—this didn’t come as a surprise.
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From accusing a Bombay high court judge of bias and then being forced to apologise to disregarding protests to build a controversial Metro car shed, the Fadnavis administration has not played nice too often.
But it seems to have paid off—Fadnavis is the first Maharashtra chief minister in 40 years to complete a full term in office. And with just two days left for the assembly election—Saturday is the last day of campaigning—the BJP looks to be in a confident, comfortable position, while the opposition is still struggling to get its act together. If there are any doubts, they are only about whether the BJP can cross the halfway mark on its own or not.
Over the past five years, Fadnavis himself has laid out his cards smartly, and some would say ruthlessly. When he took office in 2014, he was not a well-known figure outside his home state. Five years later, the 49-year-old has cut to size any potential rival who could have threatened his dominance within the BJP; weakened ally Shiv Sena’s bargaining power; hit opposition parties where it hurts by luring across influential leaders; reportedly fostered a media cabal more loyal than any chief minister could boast of earlier; and most importantly, despite being from a socially dominant but politically non-significant caste, managed to stay in the good books of both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
The rise of Fadnavis
Fadnavis was just 21 when he was elected to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation in 1992. His father, Gangadhar Fadnavis, was a well-known Jan Sangh leader who was a mentor to many workers who made it big later, such as Nitin Gadkari. After Fadnavis’s father’s untimely death in 1987, Gadkari was among the many leaders who paid back their debt by helping his young son. In 1997, Fadnavis became India’s second youngest elected mayor, taking charge in Nagpur. It was in 1999, when he was an active part of the ABVP and the BJP’s youth wing, that he was asked to contest the assembly election from Nagpur West (his current seat, Nagpur South West, was added after delimitation in 2009). He won the election with a comfortable margin, but his rise to prominence would take some time.
The Congress-NCP combine defeated the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in that assembly election to form the government, a feat that was repeated the next two times as well. So Fadnavis worked as an opposition MLA for 15 years.
A law graduate, he had the reputation of a clever politician and a good communicator, but remained in the shadow of senior politicians such as Gadkari, Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan. He may have stayed there for longer if then leader of opposition Eknath Khadse hadn’t noticed him.
Khadse, who was then an MLA from the Muktainagar assembly segment in Jalgaon, played a big part in strengthening the BJP at a time when the party was playing second fiddle to the Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena.
While Khadse could effectively target the Congress-NCP government on their rural track record, he had a tough time understanding the nitty-gritties of urban issues. This is where Fadnavis, whose extensive experience with urban management would hold him in good stead during his chief ministership as well, came in.
“At that time, Fadnavis would come across as an extremely humble young politician who was always ready to do as he was told by senior leaders. Khadse noticed that Fadnavis was good in urban issues, so he pulled Fadnavis from the seventh row in the assembly to the second row so that he could help him with some notes on urban issues. This was the first time that the media and the House began noticing Fadnavis,” a close aide of Khadse told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
But it would take seven years after Pramod Mahajan’s death in 2006 for Fadnavis’s chance to finally arrive.
In 2013, Munde, unhappy with then state BJP chief Sudhir Mungantiwar, who was close to Gadkari, wanted a change of guard in the state.
The rivalry between Gadkari and Munde was clear even while Mahajan was alive. Fadnavis had grown close to Munde as Gadkari was famous for not allowing rivals to flourish in his homeground of Vidarbha.
At that time, Rajnath Singh was the BJP president. Munde went to Khadse’s residence along with Fadnavis, said the aide cited earlier, and asked the leader to call Singh and tell him to make Fadnavis the new state president as Mungantiwar’s term was coming to an end.
“Khadse called Singh but just dropped hints that someone was sitting beside him. Singh told him that he would call him after some time. But Munde refused to leave and sat near the phone until Singh called back. When Singh called back again, Khadse had no choice but to tell him to make Fadnavis the next BJP chief of the Maharashtra unit,” Khadse’s aide recalled.
When Fadnavis was made the state president, Gadkari gave a dressing-down to Khadse and told him that this would be his life’s worst decision, added the aide.
Fadnavis, who had been patient for a long time, jumped at the opportunity, burnishing his image as a dynamic, media-savvy politician.
“There is a Lashkar-e-Devendra gang in Mumbai and in some other cities. You say one word against the CM or the government and these journalists will jump on you
Then, in 2014, after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, both Gadkari and Munde became Union ministers in Modi’s cabinet, but it was Munde’s death which cleared Fadnavis’s way.
Fadnavis managed to get Modi and Shah’s backing ahead of the state elections, and—though he didn’t even have the experience of being a state minister earlier—was made the chief minister, trumping aspirants such as one-time wellwisher Gadkari, whose uneasy equation with Modi worked against him.
Fadnavis is only the second Brahmin chief minister of Maharashtra. The community forms about 3% of the state population.
“The BJP always chooses its CM from demographically insignificant communities. This achieves two objectives: the dominant group is kept at bay and that person becomes a rallying point for all other communities. After the Maratha morcha, OBCs and others consolidated behind the BJP, as we saw in the local body polls,” said Dhawal Kulkarni, a Mumbai-based senior journalist who has reported on politics in Maharashtra for over 15 years.
The fall of rivals
After Fadnavis took over, he found that he had to contend with the displeasure of the old guard.
One of them was Khadse, who was given the post of revenue minister, but kept making his resentment clear, sometimes saying in public that the chief minister should have been from the Bahujan samaj (majority community).
But Khadse soon found his star on the wane after reports emerged accusing him of corruption and having links with the underworld.
An “ethical hacker” claimed that Khadse had received calls from underworld don Dawood Ibrahim’s wife, a tidbit media and opposition parties were quick to jump upon. People close to him were accused of accepting bribes, and the income-tax department raided his house.
Khadse was soon forced to resign from the Fadnavis cabinet. Later, the hacker was arrested for forgery.
Khadse was not reinstated into the cabinet, and the party has denied him a ticket in the upcoming assembly election. His daughter Rohini is contesting from Muktianagar this time.
There were other aspirants to the CM’s post as well, especially if the BJP decided to change its mind and pick a Bahujan candidate—Munde’s daughter Pankaja Munde, the MLA from Parli, education minister Vinod Tawde and former state party chief Mungantiwar.
A year into the government’s term, Munde, who held the women and child portfolio, faced allegations of corruption in a Rs 206 crore procurement scam, popularly called the “chikki scam”.
Munde has been under the radar for the most part of her tenure post the allegations. Tawade has been denied a ticket by the party this time and Mungantiwar found his departments facing interference from the CM or his loyalists at every turn.
The one person who is still standing up to Fadnavis within the party is state party chief Chandrakant Patil, who was considered No. 2 in the cabinet as revenue minister. In his debut electoral contest, Patil is facing a tough fight in Pune’s Kothrud.
“This CM doesn’t trust his own cabinet. He rules the state with the help of bureaucracy and even there, a select few bureaucrats are running the show,” a minister in Fadnavis’s cabinet told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
Fadnavis’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment or an interview.
What’s the track record?
On the economic front, the Fadnavis government’s performance hasn’t been very encouraging.
According to the state government’s own economic survey this year, the agriculture sector is expected to grow at just 0.4 % in 2018-19 against 3.1 % in 2017-18.
The government itself has admitted that over 12,000 farmers killed themselves between 2015 and 2018. Of these, over 4,500 were after the government announced a Rs 34,000 crore farm loan waiver with much fanfare, an RTI application showed.
While the BJP had made farmer suicides a poll plank ahead of the 2014 election, in a recent campaign in the Vidarbha region, the chief minister said that Sharad Pawar’s “sins” were responsible for the deaths.
“Farmers are anguished. Input cost has increased (in the past five years) and has become loss-making… You don’t see a policy or plan to increase farmers’ income. Today, on the eve of the election, cotton is being sold at a 40% lesser price than the minimum support price. The government isn’t saying anything about it,” said Kishor Tiwari, a farm activist and former BJP leader who was appointed by Fadnavis as the head of Maharashtra government’s task force to tackle farm distress. He quit the BJP to join Shiv Sena last month.
Girish Kuber, the editor of the leading Marathi daily Lok Satta, called the Fadnavis government’s performance on the economic front as “underwhelming”.
“If there are three parameters we want to apply for gauging his performance—political, social and economic—I think the third is the weakest. Maharashtra should have done far better than what we have done (in the last five years). Compared to other states, we are still better, but this is not how Maharashtra has been performing in terms of industry and investment front. Agricultural growth sank. The state has not been successful in attracting major industries.”
Kuber also mentioned the uncertainty over the Foxconn deal, which is now believed to have fallen through.
The Fadnavis administration has also faced significantly large protests between its tenure—a massive farmers’ march, Maratha protests which often turned violent and Dalit protests over the violence at Bhima Koregaon and its aftermath.
The chief minister has held the home portfolio for the past five years, despite demands from the opposition and even alliance partner Shiv Sena that the state should have a full-time home minister.
His handling of the Bhima Koregaon protests has led to anger among marginalised communities—last year, the chief minister gave a clean chit to the main accused Sambhaji Bhide. Instead, some human rights activists and lawyers, including Sudha Bharadwaj and Vernon Gonsalves, were booked and arrested for allegedly planning the violence.
Maharashtra is also among the first states to identify land to build a detention centre for “illegal immigrants”.
But even his detractors agree that Fadnavis is a sharp politician who has deftly handled even situations that could have flared up and affected him politically.
Shiv Sena faced its toughest election for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation when Fadnavis led the campaign against it in 2017. His party came very close to dislodging Shiv Sena from the BMC for the first time in decades.
The CM campaigned hard and led his party with confidence. The BJP now rules most of the local bodies. The cooperative sector, once dominated by the Pawars, is now speedily shifting to the BJP as most of the Congress-NCP leaders controlling these institutions have joined the ruling party in the last few months.
He has kept the influential Maratha community happy by first promising them reservations and then promising to carry out a court order that allowed him to do so.
When he was state BJP chief, Fadnavis had promised that his party would take up the issue of granting reservations to the Dhangar community.
The promise was never carried out and community leaders say they feel betrayed, but are still standing by the BJP.
Many influential leaders, including Congress’s leader of opposition Radha Krishna Vikhe Patil and NCP leader Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Shivaji, have jumped camp to the BJP.
The political masterstrokes have been boosted by the presence of well-organised, committed cadre on the ground to make sure the party reaps the benefits of welfare schemes.
The media legacy
Many Mumbai-based reporters told HuffPost India that the chief minister has carefully chosen a group of journalists who almost act as his spokespersons.
“There is a Lashkar-e-Devendra gang in Mumbai and in some other cities. You say one word against the CM or the government and these journalists will jump on you,” said a senior journalist based in Mumbai on condition of anonymity.
More than 10 journalists working in various prominent media houses in Mumbai confirmed the existence of such a group.
“Just look into any WhatsApp group of journalists to see how effectively these journalists are acting as the CM’s agents. Nothing negative is tolerated against the CM. The previous government did have interference in the media but that was limited to the editor level. Now, it is at the reporter’s level,” said another Mumbai-based journalist.
Dharmendra Jore, the chairman of the Mumbai Press Club and political editor of Mid-Day, told HuffPost India that many journalists defend Fadnavis on social media “out of love”.
“When people from Konkan or other parts of the state say something about Vidarbha, we give answers. There are people who know him for the last 35 years, who have seen his political graph and he has also seen us evolving as journalists. Whatever he has earned is through his speeches and hard work and we never had to say something about him,” he said.
“They call us Lashkar-e-Devendra out of jealousy. They are not his spokespersons but college friends. All journalists from Nagpur have been his friends and are his friends and the friendship is beyond his politics and the position he holds. He is good with everyone,” Jore added.
“Many media organizations are regularly threatened that advertisements will be pulled out if they don’t toe the government line,” alleged NCP Mumbai chief Nawab Malik.
The CM is also called “Editor In Chief” in journalistic circles of Mumbai as he often personally calls reporters “to explain his views on articles” even before they are published.
Fadnavis is also accused of controlling the state bureaucracy.
He has chosen an IPS officer, Brijesh Singh, to head the state’s information and publicity department. Bureaucrats who find themselves on the CM’s wrong side get sidelined, said an officer based in Pune.
“The situation is such that bureaucrats are scared to talk on the phone. They speak on WhatsApp calls or use old phones due to the fear of surveillance,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“Fadnavis has turned out to be a master manipulator and has defied all speculations to survive for five years. He has obliterated almost all his competitors which may well lead to the downslide of the BJP because Prithviraj Chavan had operated in a similar manner and the results are there for you to see. Fadnavis’s was the most powerful Chief Minister’s Office after Sharad Pawar’s. He has age on his side, so we may actually be looking at a scenario where he may be pitched for a national role,” said Kulkarni, the Mumbai-based senior journalist quoted earlier.
Modi himself may agree. In an election rally earlier this week, he came up with a “Narendra-Devendra formula” to show his appreciation for the younger man.
“When Narendra and Devendra stand together, then 1+1 becomes 11 and not two,” he said.