The political developments in Maharashtra — from sequestering of the Eknath Shinde-led rebel Shiv Sena MLAs, to the swearing-in of the new government on Thursday – were closely worked out by the BJP central leadership, with even key player Devendra Fadnavis not aware of the finishing touch, party sources said.
This is why the unusual sequence of events in Mumbai Thursday: first, Fadnavis’s surprise announcement that Shinde would be CM, and that he would not be part of the government; then, BJP president J P Nadda’s public statement, quickly seconded by Amit Shah, that, no, Fadnavis would be Deputy CM.
Such public display of confusion is not known in a party with its strict emphasis on planning and discipline. But if Fadnavis appeared to be not in the know, sources said, the BJP kept Shinde in the loop throughout.
As per sources, the party felt that having a strong BJP leader at the helm was the only way to ensure not just better policy-making, keeping a hold on the bureaucracy and pushing the agenda of the government, but also providing a stable government. “Out of power, Fadnavis would be an extra-constitutional power centre, which could lead to problems,” a leader said.
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With Fadnavis seen as an able administrator, keeping him out would have sent all the wrong signals apart from demoralising the cadre, the party felt.
On Shinde though, the party was clear, with the Sena rebel leader having been told that he would be CM if he got the requisite Sena rebel numbers.
Fadnavis in fact visited the national capital twice to hold discussions with both Home Minister Amit Shah and Nadda, but was not apparently given the full picture. This is also clear from his happy acceptance of congratulatory messages from partymen and well-wishers once news came in of Uddhav Thackeray’s resignation.
A senior functionary admitted to The Indian Express that the decision was made entirely by Delhi — “Union home minister Amit Shah, party president JP Nadda”. Later, the two also called up Fadnavis, and in public statements, were full of praise for his “contribution”.
With Lok Sabha and Assembly elections scheduled in 2024, the BJP sees very little time left for it to fast-track its mega flagship projects, and Fadnavis, having been CM earlier, could be best placed to push them. Shinde, on the contrary, having spent all his political life in the shadow of the Thackerays could have found it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand as he kept the Sena together.
Apart from this, the decision was prompted by caste calculation. A BJP leader said: “We had to factor in social engineering. In a state with 3% Brahmins, having a Brahmin as CM would give the Opposition Congress, NCP and the Uddhav Sena a convenient weapon to target the BJP.” Shinde is a Maratha, who make up 30% of the population. During his tenure as CM between 2014 and 2019, Fadnavis had faced an aggressive Maratha agitation for reservation lasting two years.
The BJP leader who was a surprise choice for CM in 2014 was also seen to have risen too fast in a party that prefers its ranks to keep a low-profile. Sources said both state and Central leaders had noted Fadnavis’s popularity, and it could have also prompted the clipping of the wings of the leader once seen as enjoying the confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While generally liked, Fadnavis has his detractors in the ranks. Senior leader Eknath Khadse, who left the BJP to join the NCP in 2020 after facing corruption charges, blamed him. Other leaders such as Vinod Tawde and Chandraskhekhar Bawankule also suspected Fadnavis’s hand in the denial of tickets to them in the 2019 Assembly polls, and were in fact accommodated by the BJP later. Another prominent face, Pankaja Munde, stated publicly that she did not consider Fadnavis her leader and also blamed him for her loss from the Parli Assembly seat.
Party sources in Delhi said that notwithstanding their appreciation of his stewardship of the BJP in the state, the central leadership had also developed “reservations” over his style of functioning.
Lately though, Fadnavis’s graph had again been on the rise. He had kept the pressure up on the MVA government on Hindutva issues, was instrumental in many of its leaders facing cases, and had recently secured extra votes for the BJP to help it win more seats in the Rajya Sabha and Legislative Council polls than its numbers gave it.
On Thursday evening, even as Fadnavis announced at a press conference in Mumbai that Shinde will be the next CM while he would not be a part of the government, in the national capital, Nadda declared that the BJP leader would be Deputy CM. ”Fadnavis has just now announced that Eknath Shinde will be the CM of Maharashtra and he will not be part of the government. It shows the character of our party and our leader and that we are not working for power but for our ideology… The BJP’s central leadership, however, has decided that Fadnavis should become a part of the government. So, I made a personal request to him,” Nadda said.
Endorsing the same in a tweet within minutes, Shah said: “… (Fadnavis) has shown a big heart and decided to join the government in the interest of the state of Maharashtra and the people. This decision is a sign of his true loyalty and service towards Maharashtra. For this I heartily congratulate him.”
At least two senior leaders told The Indian Express that this could be a “stop gap arrangement” and Fadnavis might be called to national politics in the future.
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