In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Devendra Fadnavis as the chief minister of Maharashtra, many questioned the young Nagpur mayor’s ability to get on top of the state’s complex deep-rooted caste politics.
Five years later, Fadnavis (49) has proved his naysayers wrong. He has been a determined administrator and, under his leadership, the Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged stronger in the state.
Fadnavis remains the most acceptable and credible face of the organisation and government in Maharashtra. The three-phased Mahajanadesh Yatra — an outreach campaign undertaken by Fadnavis across 4,092 km covering 140 Assembly segments across Vidarbha, Marathwada, North Maharashtra, Western Maharashtra and Konkan — has also helped cement his place as the BJP’s top shot in the state.
In the last week, Modi and party president Amit Shah, on three public occasions between them, declared Fadnavis as the chief ministerial face of the party.
With the opposition in disarray and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine expected to win easily, the challenge now for Fadnavis is to ensure the BJP by itself wins a majority, by crossing the half-way mark of 145 seats. The alliance partners are there to ensure that the saffron combine crosses the target of 235 seats out of the total 288.
In the 2014 Assembly polls, the BJP won 122 seats, 23 short of the half-way mark. It formed the government with the help of the Shiv Sena, which won 63 seats.
The chief minister has so far appeared adept at sweet-talking the Shiv Sena, and is always sanguine about the alliance. “All is well. There is perfect understanding between Uddhav and me,” he has said every time relations between the two allies hit a difficult patch. With few wrinkles on his political runway, Fadnavis sees himself more as a purveyor of what he calls “development politics”.
“The 2019 Assembly elections are going to be a defining moment for Maharashtra, which is striving to go global. The people across rural and urban areas are rising above caste and community to give precedence to development politics. This is a single plank which has earned me goodwill from people across region,” Fadnavis told The Indian Express on Sunday.
He successfully navigated the choppy waters of the 2016-18 Maratha agitation, warding off attacks on his own Brahmin identity, and eventually conceding the contentious quota demand through legislation that was held to be legally and constitutionally valid. The Dhangar agitation, which also led to social unrest, was overcome by extending Rs 1,000crore financial welfare schemes.
“The Maratha agitation was the litmus test for the chief minister. On one hand, there were people who are trying to prop-up the anti-Brahmin card to target Fadnavis. But overall the agitation led to sharp polarisation between Marathas and OBCs, which was detrimental for the community and a progressive Maharashtra,” said Bharipbahujan Mahasangh chief Prakash Ambedkar.
To what extent the BJP will profit from its quota decision remains to be seen. The Maratha community forms 32 per cent of Maharashtra’s population. The 46 seats in Marathwada and 70 in Western Maharashtra have a sizeable Maratha community and could prove crucial for the BJP’s target in this election. “When a leader is open to dialogue, people no longer are hostile. The community understands the decision rests with the Centre. The implementation of welfare schemes have gone down well with the masses,” said Dhangar leader Vikas Mahatme.
The drought, and in some parts, floods, are also seen as influencers. Rural Maharashtra accounts for 125 constituencies. Here, the government has deployed measures such as a Rs 24,000-crore loan waiver to 51 lakh farmers and an insurance scheme coupled with Prime Minister Awas Yojna.
“Fadnavis’ ability to connect with people lies in his honest intentions and sincere efforts. Therefore, despite several challenges, he could retain their confidence and support,” said BJP leader Surjit Singh Thakur.