The last-minute twist in the Maharashtra political drama Thursday that saw the BJP high command forcing Devendra Fadnavis to join the rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde-led government as Deputy Chief Minister might have shocked Fadnavis and his legion of supporters in the state BJP, but he seems to have already left it behind to move to setting new goals for himself and the state BJP. This was evidenced Friday night, when during a closed-door meeting of the BJP MLAs, Fadnavis, while accepting their congratulatory greetings and bouquets, exhorted them to start gearing up for the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls due in 2024.
The BJP central leadership’s stunning move to let Shinde, the leader of 39 rebel Sena MLAs, take over as the CM with Fadnavis as his deputy despite the saffron party being the single largest party with 106 MLAs in the 288-member House, has however not gone down well with the party rank and file in the state. This was reflected in the state BJP’s celebrations, which was low-key with the photos of Union Home Minister Amit Shah missing from its posters at various places.
If Maharashtra BJP insiders are to be believed, the resentment of a large section of the party workers is not centred so much on the “sacrifice” of the CM’s post as on the perceived “humiliation” inflicted on their leader “Apla Devendra (Our Devendra)”. They claim that the high command’s “diktat” at the eleventh hour ordering Fadnavis to take oath as Shinde’s deputy is “unlikely to be forgotten or forgiven” anytime soon. Its implications are clear: The BJP leadership will have to explain to its cadre in the coming days the “long-term objective” behind this drastic action plan.
The state BJP chief Chandrakant Patil says, “The party reckons the huge sacrifice Fadnavis had to make for the larger interest of the party. Everybody knows he was the CM candidate. But when it was conveyed to him Shinde is next CM he readily accepted. He showed large-heartedness by accepting the Deputy CM’s post.”
The former Nagpur mayor, Sandeep Joshi, shot off an emotional letter hailing Fadnavis’ sacrifice, terming him an “ideal for every karyakarta (party worker)” while declaring that “our respect and love for Fadnavis has increased thousand times more”.
The BJP leadership’s decision to install Shinde as the CM is said to be part of its larger game plan to make “deeper inroads into the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena’s support base” across the state. The party’s immediate target is to wrest the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) from the Sena’s control in the upcoming civic elections.
Those in the BJP who justify Fadnavis’ secondary position in the new dispensation contend that with only half term of the government remaining the party should “not own up the anti-incumbency”. At the same time, to deliver administrative results, the inclusion of Fadnavis in the Shinde ministry was thought necessary, they argue. The BJP has set targets to win 32-35 Lok Sabha seats of the total 48 in the general elections and its own majority with 145-plus seats in the Assembly polls. These goals might be ambitious, but some BJP strategists believe that the time is ripe to achieve them with the Sena and the Congress having weakened considerably. However, a state BJP section does not seem to be convinced by such explanations.
Some state BJP leaders even charged that the “downsizing” of Fadnavis’s stature might have come as a consequence of the central leadership’s “growing discomfort” with his rise as a leader. They also claimed that Fadnavis’ party rivals who were sidelined during his tenure as the CM during 2014-19, when Shinde was a minister in his cabinet, might have also “influenced” the high command’s decision.
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