Changes at the top in the central BJP organisation, including the removal of Nitin Gadkari and the inclusion of Devendra Fadnavis, have sent ripples of speculation in the Maharashtra unit of the party.
While no one is willing to come on record on the matter, leaders are reading several messages in this particular shuffle. If Gadkari’s exit from the highest decision-making body of the BJP comes close on the heels of his statements seen as directed at the high command, with whom he has always had a strained relationship, Fadnavis’s promotion comes after he was virtually snubbed and kept out of the Chief Minister’s post, which he felt he had earned.
There is a third message, feel party leaders. In Maharashtra, Gadkari and Fadnavis – who have shared roots in both the RSS and Nagpur – are seen as old rivals. The elevation of Fadnavis at the same time as Gadkari’s removal, after eight years in the BJP parliamentary board, is not coincidental, some leaders say.
Asked about the changes, a senior BJP general secretary said there was no point to the speculation. “The central leadership has its own reasons for giving or taking away responsibilities from individuals in the party and government.”
A former BJP president seen to enjoy RSS backing, Gadkari was once considered among the top rung in the party despite being outside the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah circle. While he has seen his stars dip, relegated to the relatively less significant Union Ministry for Roads and Transport, Gadkari has not been afraid to speak his mind. Meanwhile, his reputation as among the best-performing ministers means the Modi government can’t ignore him either. He has often insisted that he himself sought the Roads and Transport portfolio.
In the 2021 Cabinet reshuffle, Gadkari was further divested of the MSME portfolio he held. The charge was given to another leader from Maharashtra, Sena-turned-BJP leader Narayan Rane.
The latest blow in terms of removal from the parliamentary board – unexpected and unprovoked – means Gadkari will have even less of a say in the running of the BJP. A senior BJP functionary said, “It is evident that the central BJP leadership wants to curtail Gadkari’s political clout and ambitions ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.”
Meanwhile, Fadnavis’s stature has just gone up a substantial notch. Party sources say that as many as 80 of the 106 BJP MLAs in Maharashtra expressed their unhappiness over him being relegated to deputy CM, in the arrangement with the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena faction in the state. This is despite the BJP having substantially more MLAs than the Shinde faction. “To avoid unrest within the organisation, Fadnavis had to be strengthened politically,” a leader said.
Of the Gadkari-Fadnavis rivalry, leaders point out that both are from Nagpur town in Vidarbha region and if Gadkari represents Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency, Fadnavis is the Nagpur South West MLA.
At a function held in Nagpur this week to felicitate newly appointed state BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule, Gadkari seemed to take a swipe at Fadnavis, saying: “Everybody knows the importance of the BJP president’s post. Those who hold this post become CM.” While Gadkari was quick to add that Fadnavis was the “obvious” choice for CM post and that nobody should read more into his remarks, he added a rider to this too: “As and when he (Fadnavis) goes to the centre, Bawankuke could replace him in the state.”
Although Bawankule has always been loyal to Gadkari, his relations with Fadnavis are cordial too. So, more than Bawankule, Gadkari’s remarks seemed to be targeted at Fadnavis. “Although Fadnavis may have had to be content with the Deputy CM post, the sympathy and support he received from the party was tremendous. This has helped him consolidate his position within the organisation in Maharashtra,” a leader said.
The central leadership took note of Gadkari’s remarks, and apparently felt he had spoken out of turn.
Before this, again at a function in Nagpur, the Union minister had hinted at deterioration in the nature of politics and suggested retirement for himself.
Fadnavis’s growing clout is also evident in the Cabinet formation and portfolio allocation. For example, BJP former state president Chandrakant Patil, who was said to be vying for Revenue or Cooperation and was forced to settle for Higher and Technical Education. Patil was considered No. 2 in the Sena-BJP government of 2014-2019. Similarly, former finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar got the less-prominent Forest and Culture portfolios. Sources said the two share an excellent rapport with Shah and tried to raise their grievances with the central leadership, but could not get anywhere.
Those close to Fadnavis, on the other hand, were amply rewarded. If Girish Mahajan bagged Rural Development and Medical Education, Ravindra Chavhan is the new PWD Minister.
Even back in 2014, Fadnavis was seen as having been propped up by the central BJP to act as a foil to Gadkari. Modi, who was said to be fond of Fadnavis, had indicated that the latter was the party’s CM face while giving a speech in the run-up to the Assembly elections, in Nagpur.