NAGPUR, Maharashtra — When Devendra Fadnavis took oath as Maharashtra chief minister with the Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar as his deputy on November 23 only to resign 80 hours later in disgrace, many in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thought Fadnavis would be held accountable for his misadventures.
But Fadnavis was back in a key role in the BJP pecking order this month when he was named the leader of opposition in the state assembly. Many in the BJP and some on the outside, see the hidden hand of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in sheltering the Hindu right’s first major Brahmin face in decades.
Yet Fadnavis’s pardon by the party hierarchy appears to have ruffled many feathers inside the saffron party.
A day after Fadnavis was named the leader of the opposition, a former cabinet minister in Fadnavis cabinet and daughter of Gopinath Munde Pankaja wrote a Facebook post in which she declared that she will decide on her “future course” of action on December 12, the birth anniversary of her father.
A day later, she removed the word ‘BJP’ from her bio on her official Twitter account fueling speculations that she might quit the BJP.
Pankaja along with the former leader of opposition in Maharashtra Assembly Eknath Khadse and former Minister Vinod Tawade were seen to be competitors to Fadnavis inside the party and the government and all three come from majority “Bahujan Samaj”.
Khadse and Tawade were denied tickets in the recently concluded assembly elections. BJP gave the ticket to Khadse’s daughter Rohini but she was defeated by an independent candidate.
Pankaja, the former MLA from Parali seat in Beed district of the state, who lost to her estranged cousin and NCP leader Dhananjay Munde, has been meeting other disgruntled leaders in the party.
After one such meeting between Pankaja, Tawade, and Khadse last week after Fadnavis was named the leader of the opposition, Khadse aired his disgruntlement openly.
He did not name Fadnavis but blamed some “party insiders” for Pankaja’s loss from Parali.
“Pankaja and my daughter Rohini lost this election. I deliberated on the reasons behind these losses. We have decided to convey the reasons behind these two defeats to our party seniors and request them to take action against those who have worked against the party,” Khadse told reporters after meeting Pankaja in Mumbai. “It appears that Rohini and Pankaja were defeated because of some people inside the BJP.”
When asked if all prominent OBC leaders are being sidelined in the BJP, Khadse said, “Unfortunately, that appears to be the picture. How can only OBC leaders lose the election? Some like Chandrashekhar Bawankule (former minister) were denied the ticket. It is a fact that BJP would have easily won more than 105 seats, had there been proper coordination.”
Asked if he was blaming Fadnavis, Khadse said, “What is the point in blaming lower leadership? The way you take credit for the victory, there should be the responsibility for defeats as well. I won’t say much, you people are clever to understand more.”
Khadse’s displeasure indicates a common trend in the Maharashtra BJP. Prominent BJP leaders have always been sidelined to make way for Brahmin leaders like Gadkari and Fadnavis who lack a mass base.
Khadse, Tawade, and Munde join a list that includes Mahadev Shivankar, Vinod Gudadhe Patil.
But if some RSS sources from Nagpur are to be believed, Fadnavis has been pardoned as the Sangh is deeply invested in him as a long-term project.
“Fadnavis has been pardoned and rehabilitated, not because Sangh (RSS) needs him in Maharashtra but he is the RSS’s next bet after Modi. Modi was RSS pracharak but Amit Shah never had a background like that,” the source, a former pracharak, said. “The Sangh invested in (Nitin) Gadkari but that move failed. Now Sangh has its eye on Fadnavis.”
“Don’t be surprised if you see Fadnavis in a prominent national role soon. But Amit Shah doesn’t seem to have a liking for him, otherwise, he would have easily made it to the central cabinet after Maharashtra election,” the source concluded.
Gopinath Munde and Khadse made BJP a party acceptable to everyone from a party of a handful of people. Please don’t take it back to its old days again
BJP spokesperson Girish Vyas denied that the party had sidelined its OBC leaders.
“BJP has always respected OBCs. We also started a special ministry for OBCs and Rs 1000 crore was given to this ministry. So how can it be said that OBCs are being sidelined in the BJP? It is not true. BJP has always favoured OBCs than any other party in India,” Vyas said.
When asked if promoting Fadnavis strengthens the perception of BJP being a Brahmin-Baniya Party and Khadse’s allegations, Vyas said, “Mr.Khadse is a very senior leader of our party. He was given a very good portfolio in the Fadanvis cabinet with due respect. I do not understand why is he making such statements and I don’t want to comment on it as he is a very senior leader of our party. He has a right to air his views on BJP’s internal platform he must think, while airing views in public, that it might defame party leadership.”
When asked about most OBC leaders either being denied tickets or losing the election, Vyas said, “These people might have lost an election but they are not losers. They are strong leaders of the BJP. Loss in election or denial of the ticket is not the measure of leadership. Pankaja Munde is our leader and we appreciate her leadership.”
Vyas refused to react when asked if Fadnavis is groomed as a possible successor of Modi but claimed that BJP is a party of common people and not controlled by a few families.
Former RSS member and writer-thinker close to RSS Dilip Deodhar thinks someone has deliberately planted rumors about Fadnavis being a probable successor of Modi to stymie his chances.
“When Amit Shah denied tickets to some leaders through Devendra, it was just a coincidence that all those leaders were OBCs,” Deodhar said. “In the last five years, Prakash Javadekar and Nitin Gadkari in the center, Fadnavis in Maharashtra and Bhaiyyaji Joshi and Mohan Bhagwat in RSS being prominent leaders helped create a perception that Maharashtra BJP gang is a Brahmin gang. This perception is not parallel with RSS’s perception and image.”
On Monday, Khadse met NCP chief Sharad Pawar in Delhi. On Tuesday he called on Maharashtra CM and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray intensifying speculations that he might be considering quitting the party. Khadse and Munde also skipped two key BJP meetings in the last week.
Munde broke her silence at a grand rally in her home district Beed on Friday. She asked BJP to relieve her from the core committee of the party but her attack was directed at Fadnavis.
“People like me have been cornered to the extent that they have been forced to think of leaving the party. The party doesn’t belong to an individual. It’s time for the party to think. Pankaja Munde won’t sit quite at her home,” Munde said. “Should the people, who gave 30-40 years to the party, keep quiet? Why? I want my original party back.”
She also announced that she would be observing a day-long fast and embark on a statewide tour under the banner of Gopinath Munde Pratishthan next month.
“People are asking me to form a new party,” Munde said. “But it is for the party to decide what to do now. I am not even a member of BJP’s core committee now. I will reconsider it only when decisions (in the party) will be taken in a democratic way.”
BJP deputed OBC leader and former finance minister Sudhir Munguntiwar to try and convince Khadse. Bawankule also issued a statement saying that BJP gave him more than what he deserved.
But despite attempts to damage control, things appear far from stable in Maharashtra BJP and after Pankaja’s rally in Beed, in which Khadse once again attacked Fadnavis in presence of BJP state chief Chandrakant Patil, the quarrel is out in the open now.