'But the coldness between the two is definitely melting.'
From being Nagpur's youngest mayor at 27 to becoming Maharashtra BJP president, then leader of the Opposition, then chief minister, now deputy chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis broke into the Bharatiya Janata Party's elite Central Election Committee recently, leading to murmurs about his political ambitions at the national level.
It was not a one-way ride up though for the man who now could well become the BJP's national president in time.
Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com spoke to leaders who have seen Devendra Fadnavis's rise from close quarters.
"It was Fadnavis's idea to make (Eknath) Shinde the CM. Fadnavis wanted to create an impression that he was not power-hungry, greedy. At the same time he wanted to create a narrative that the split was the Shiv Sena's internal matter though I am not sure how much he succeeded in this make-believe drama," contends a BJP insider.
The other obstacle that Fadnavis had to jump over was his estrangement with Amit Shah -- the BJP's second-most powerful leader -- that had begun showing itself after the Ajit Pawar fiasco.
"It is 100 per cent true that he has not been in Amit Shah's good books ever since. But that Shah ensured Fadnavis's humiliation was complete by making him the deputy CM after the latter had asserted that he won't be part of the Maharashtra cabinet is only half the truth," claims another BJP leader from the state.
"They are still not on good terms with each other, but the ice and coldness between the two is definitely melting," says he.
According to this leader the drama was staged by Shah, BJP President Jagat Prakash Nadda and Fadnavis.
"By getting Fadnavis to accept the post of deputy CM, they smartly drifted the narrative away from the BJP playing power politics in the state to how the BJP and Fadnavis were not power hungry. They also wanted to send a message to Shiv Sena cadres that Uddhav Thackeray's camaraderie with the Congress and NCP were responsible for the vertical split in his party," adds this leader.
And Fadnavis was amply rewarded for this by bringing him onboard the 15-member BJP Central Election Committee. "There already is talk that Fadnavis is slated to be its next national president," says a BJP leader from Nagpur.
"That's the most he can go in the BJP with (BJP supremo Narendra Damodardas) Modi's blessings. He can safely count himself out of the PM race given his caste and limited reach and acceptability out of Maharashtra," he adds.
Believer in karma
"Let me put it this way," says an observer of Maharashtra politics. "He wants to become PM, but he will never reveal his feelings openly. At least, not at this stage when he is accumulating accolades for his Maharashtra adventure."
According to a veteran BJP leader, Fadnavis is smart enough to not let anybody know what's going on between those two ears of his. "He is a doer. He believes in writing his own fate. He believes in karma."
'Why would India need anybody else when Prime Minister Modi is doing an excellent job for the country?' is how Fadnavis stalls attempts at getting him to react about his ambitions to become prime minister.
"He is shrewd enough to bide his time till the tide turns in his favour," says the Maharashtra commentator. "He knows age favours him and that Modi will not be India's prime minister forever."
"Who doesn't covet that post?" asks the BJP veteran about Fadnavis's political ambitions. "But he knows how ruthlessly Modi sidelines his political opponents within the party," he says, pointing out how Nitin Gadkari was unceremoniously shown the door recently from the BJP Parliamentary Board.
"Everybody wants that coveted job, no doubt. But Fadnavis will not let Gadkari happen to him," he claims.
Always a learner
While Fadnavis has played his cards well till now, he does suffer from a sense of superiority and invincibility in Maharashtra.
The coterie around him, after he became the chief minister in 2014, made him believe that he was ahead of Sharad Pawar as a leader from Maharashtra on the national stage. That he was the next PM candidate in the BJP.
"That surely has made him smug and rude," observes the veteran BJP leader.
In October 2015, Fadnavis proudly proclaimed at a media conclave in Mumbai that it was curtains for Sharad Pawar's brand of politics.
'He likes to play chess and I don't much like the game. Sharad Pawar is incessantly obsessed with the politics of power and subterfuge, but I am only interested in development,' he had said as much at this conclave.
"It was quiet an overstatement for Fadnavis to make," says a Nationalist Congress Party leader about Fadnavis's asides on Pawar.
"One does not openly utter such words, but then power has an uncanny ability to make you feel invincible and that's when a person is most vulnerable to making mistakes," he adds.
Such "hubris always misfires" and it did for Fadnavis when he miscalculated how Sharad Pawar would react after knowing that his nephew had bolted his uncle's stable to join hands with the BJP in an early morning coup in November 2019.
"There was egg all over. Even Modi-Shah were not spared of the ignominy that Fadnavis wrought on them when Ajit dada went back to his uncle."
But then there is no end to a politician's career and Fadnavis too learned his lessons well from the unseemly drama.
"The Ajit Pawar fiasco made him realise that in politics you trust NOBODY," emphasises the NCP leader who admires Fadnavis for being the politician that he is.
"In fact, he learned another lesson from Uddhav Thackeray. He once told me: 'Thackeray fakt kama purti mama aahet (That Thackeray is an opportunist)'," reveals the political observer.
"He made a huge mistake in assessing Uddhav Thackeray as a politician. Uddhav did a Fadnavis on Fadnavis when he joined hands with the NCP and Congress. Uddhav did share familial relations with Fadnavis, but when opportunity arose he ditched his old friends," adds this political commentator.
"And what he did to Uddhav this June clearly amplifies his ruthlessness and what a shrewd politician he is."