At Sirsi in Umred, 44 km from Nagpur, villagers have already declared Devendra Gangadhar Fadnavis the next chief minister of Maharashtra. Speaker after speaker at a rally promoted him as such, while the audience chanted, “Kendrat Narendra, Rajyat Devendra”, or “Narendra at the Centre, Devendra in the state”.
It is a slogan that has found an echo not only in other parts of Vidarbha’s cotton-growing belt but also in north Maharashtra, western Maharashtra, Marathwada, Konkan and Mumbai. And last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a possible indication of what is on the BJP’s mind when he said in Nagpur that “Devendra Fadnavis is Nagpur’s gift to Maharashtra”.
Fadnavis, 44, dismisses such talk with a smile. “At the moment I am the state BJP president. My job is restricted to delivering results in the elections, to see that the BJP wins an absolute majority,” he says. “The snapping of the alliance with the Shiv Sena was sudden and we have to go the extra mile to make up for time lost. The Modi wave is working to our advantage.”
He devotes 18 to 20 hours daily to his work. Apart from holding six public rallies or so, he’s awake till past midnight reviewing campaign progress, addressing complaints and modifying strategies, and is frequently interrupted by telephone calls. And the next day begins at 6 am.
A lawyer who graduated with a gold medal, Fadnavis has a postgraduate degree in business management and a diploma in project management from German Foundation for International Development.
At an event on Saturday, Chetan Bhagat wondered how at the age of 21, when young men are mostly concerned with girlfriends, Fadnavis could have been engrossed in serious politics. Fadnavis had become Nagpur mayor at age 27, India’s youngest. He replied, “Yes, I am wondering what Chetan’s funda for Half Girlfriend (Bhagat’s latest novel) is.” In 2006, Fadnavis married Amruta Ranade, associate vice president with Axis Bank. Their daughter Divija is now six.
He went on to explain to Bhagat, “At home, we learnt early that politics is a means to bring socio-economic transformation, serve the people. Participation in student politics came naturally.”
Fadnavis was 17 when he lost his father; his mother Sarita raised him and his brother. He joined the BJP when in college. In 1989, he rose from ward president to BJP Yuva Morcha president.
As a student, he used to visit the RSS shaka at Trikoni Park near his house. Colleague Ajay Ganorkar recalls, “ He was an excellent student and mingled easily with us, though he was not very good at sports.” Rekha Ganorkar, 77, speaks of his humility, “He would bow his head before anyone he met and say namaskar.”
Those who have worked with him, too, speak of his simplicity, straightforwardness and involvement in his work. When he was made the BJP president on April 11, 2013, the party asked him if they should rent him a flat in Mumbai. He declined, saying his room as an MLA was enough. It is something that goes with the image of a man who always carries his own luggage and prefers to travel economy class.
“Fadnavis comes across as a simple karyakarta at the BJP headquarters in Nariman Point,” says Mukund Kulkarni, a political veteran of 25 years. “I don’t remember him ever having demanded anything for lunch or dinner. Any food that is available is his meal. It’s his simplicity that helps him connects to all.”
“What I like about this boy is his straightforwardness,” the late Gopinath Munde once told The Indian Express. “If he disapproves of anything he will say so in the face, even to me.”
Colleagues describe how he is involved at every level from booth management to budget decisions. They attribute the BJP’s vision document to his research. “There is no point just identifying mistakes in agriculture, irrigation, education or finance. I believe in finding solutions,” he says.
Fadnavis is contesting for a fourth term from Nagpur Southwest. He won in 1999, 2004 and 2009, his campaign marked by speeches on the budget, legislature business, and scams under the Congress-NCP regime.