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'Fadnavis is as ruthless as Modi-Shah'

Last updated on: September 19, 2022 17:50 IST

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 BJP'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 potentially become the BJP's national president in time.

Prasanna D Zore/ spoke to leaders who have seen Devendra Fadnavis's rise from close quarters.

IMAGE: Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife banker-singer Amruta Fadnavis as Union Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah and his wife Sonalben Shah seek Lord Ganesha's blessings at the Fadnavis's home in Mumbai, September 5, 2022. Photograph: Deepak Salvi

When Sudhir Mungantiwar was the Bharatiya Janata Party president in Maharashtra, there was talk of him getting a second term. Gopinath Munde, then the BJP's tallest leader in the state, intervened and got Devendra Fadnavis into the saddle.

Replacing Mungantiwar -- who was and is close to Union Minister Nitin Gadkari -- with his mentee Fadnavis in Maharashtra was Munde's play to check Gadkari's influence in the state BJP.

Interestingly, despite his liking for Fadnavis, Munde never considered Fadnavis chief minister material.

Turning point

Speaking to a reporter during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign when it was clear that he could perhaps head to the Centre, Munde had tipped Vinod Tawde to be the BJP's next chief minister.

But Munde's elevation as Union minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet and his unfortunate death in a road accident in Delhi soon after brought Fadnavis into the Maharashtra spotlight, says a BJP insider who had toured the state extensively with Munde and has seen Fadnavis's rise from close quarters.

"Munde's death was a turning point in Fadnavis's rise," he claims. While Tawde was being seen as a frontrunner to lead the BJP government in Maharashtra in 2015, Amit Anilchandra Shah, then the BJP's national president, and Sunil Deshpande, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak who rejected Tawde's candidature as a potential BJP CM in Maharashtra.

"That made Fadnavis who had, and still has, a spotless, clean image to emerge as the top contender within the BJP," says the BJP insider, speaking on condition that he would not be identified for this report.

"During one of his election rallies in 2014, Modi had called Fadnavis the biggest gift from Nagpur to the country," says the insider. "That gave a huge fillip to Fadnavis's rise in the state."

Modi didn't mention Gadkari (who had tacitly opposed Modi's candidature as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate) or even the RSS while showering fulsome praise on Fadnavis.

"Modi's remarks clearly indicated the direction in which the wind was blowing. Modi had also talked about Fadnavis's political acumen for calling a clean sweep for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election even while campaigning was on. After that, Fadnavis never looked back."

"Still, if Munde were alive, Fadnavis would have never got to be the state's CM," says a political commentator in Mumbai.

IMAGE: Amruta and Devendra Fadnavis with their only child Divija and Sonalben and Amit Anilchandra Shah at the Fadnavis's home in Mumbai, September 5, 2022. Photograph: Deepak Salvi

What clearly worked for Fadnavis was his clean image in a state where there were charges of corruption against all and sundry, his aggression while heading the state BJP as well as when he was made Leader of the Opposition.

"The national BJP leadership saw in Fadnavis as someone who could match Sharad Pawar's political chicanery and at the same time contain the Shiv Sena's sphere of influence. As events have since unfolded, Fadnavis amply proved how valuable he is to the BJP's long-term vision," says the BJP insider.

"The Modi-Shah duo overturned all the opposition within the state and national BJP to Fadnavis being a Brahmin in a state where there is no Brahmin vote bank and bet all their capital on Fadnavis. They wanted to experiment with a young, aggressive, face and they succeeded," says this BJP leader.

"Vinod Tawde, despite his Maratha antecedents and political aggression was sidelined by the central leadership and Sudhirbhau Mungantiwar was never in the race for being Gadkari's man," he adds.

Ruthless administrator

IMAGE: Fadnavis, second from left, with Shah, third from left, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and city BJP leaders at the Lalbaugcha Raja pandal in central Mumbai, September 5, 2022. Photograph: Sahil Salvi

Fadnavis emerged a ruthless administrator once he took over as chief minister and this brought him closer to the Modi-Shah leadership.

"He is as ruthless as Modi and Shah," says a BJP leader from Nagpur. "This is very unlike Gadkari who will openly express his displeasure to his opponent one moment and a few hours later be seen sharing a hearty joke with the same guy."

Political ambitions

"His caste will definitely work against him," says the BJP insider. "I don't see how the BJP will entertain an upper caste prime minister at least till 2034. The party's focus is the OBCs and the BJP can't realise its vision of ruling entire India without the support of this vote bank. 60 per cent plus voters for the BJP belong to this category."

"The other main challenge for Fadnavis will be his acceptance outside Maharashtra. He may have won Goa, Maharashtra and Bihar [in 2020 he was the poll coordinator for the state and the BJP won more seats than its alliance partner the Janata Dal-United)]," he adds.

"The 2029 Lok Sabha election will have seen an increase in number of Lok Sabha seats and 60 per cent of these seats will be from north India where Yogi (UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath) is very popular. In such a scenario, Fadnavis may be pipped to the post buy Yogi," says the political commentator from Maharashtra.

"Fadnavis may be a better administrator, diplomatically suave, may speak good English, but all these traits don't matter much in power politics. What matters is how many seats you can win for the party," he adds.

"Interestingly, the RSS isn't projecting Fadnavis as PM material as much as they backed Gadkari," says the BJP leader from Nagpur.

The BJP insider attributes Fadnavis's rise in the party to Modi's blessings. "He did not become CM because the RSS wanted him to be there. It was Modi's blessings all the way."

However, Fadnavis's image suffered a huge jolt after the early morning oath-taking ceremony with Ajit Pawar (of the Nationalist Congress Party) turned into a fiasco and dented the image of the party's top leadership as 'Chanakyas' of Indian politics.

"While Modi did not openly berate Fadnavis for this embarrassment, he did maintain his distance from the man after 2019. Nevertheless, he was still given an opportunity to prove himself and that he did spectacularly by getting Eknath Shinde break away from the Shiv Sena in the middle of the night," says the BJP insider.

"There is Amit Shah written all over the Shinde Experiment in the way it was planned," points out the BJP insider, "but Fadnavis was the man on the ground executing the split in the Shiv Sena from the front."