On his ‘Mahajanadesh Yatra’ to seek citizens’ blessings ahead of the state Assembly elections on October 21, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis hopped off a helicopter dozens of times, criss-crossing 4,092 km and 140 Assembly constituencies over six weeks of the yatra. It was a far cry from the images of November 2014, carefully selected and released to the media, of a smiling Fadnavis with wife Amruta in economy class seats onboard a commercial airline. To Fadnavis’s credit, that image management that appeared to be a central accoutrement of his first several months as chief minister is simply no longer needed.
In fact, it would no longer be useful, as Fadnavis cultivates a fresh image for himself, after delivering for the Centre 23 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats the party contested this summer, the best strike rate for the party in the state. Restricting the Congress to one solitary MP, Fadnavis was also central to region-wise strategies to oust several Opposition big guns, including former CM Ashok Chavan.
The Assembly elections are widely seen as elementary stuff for the BJP. Under Fadnavis’s leadership, the party has won a string of polls to municipal corporations, councils, zilla parishads and panchayats, damaging the Congress-NCP’s grassroots base in many parts.
Nobody is more keenly aware of this new image than the man himself. At his rally this week in Ner, requiring the microphone height adjusted, Fadnavis quipped, “People have put me on a higher pedestal. You can’t keep microphones so low.”
But for all his amiability at public appearances, in the past one year, the 49-year-old lawyer from Nagpur has demonstrated that he’s not shy of realpolitik. Four ministers in his government have been axed ahead of the elections, and will thus be neither in the next Cabinet nor in the fray when it is time to appoint a successor. The wooing of Maratha warrior king Shivaji’s descendant and sitting MP Udayanraje Bhosale into the BJP, reducing the NCP’s Lok Sabha tally to three MPs, was a coup. Meanwhile, a recruitment drive of leaders of all manner of ideology and antecedents into the BJP is a clinical approach to poll mathematics.
The roping in of some regional satraps with unsavoury back-stories — from Nitesh Rane to Ganesh Naik — is just grist for the mill for the BJP’s formidable march. When Fadnavis drew the line at inducting a Muslim Congress MLA from Mumbai, it was reportedly because some right-wing organisations had taken issue with the latter in the past.
Even as a top Opposition leader in the Maharashtra Assembly, with the meatiest attacks on the Congress-NCP government, Fadnavis was always high on substance and low on rhetoric. A loyal foot soldier of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, evidence of the fine balance he holds is in the fact that the Fadnavis government has been unwilling to push for a ban on the Sanatan Sanstha despite a member being arrested for the Govind Pansare murder. And though the state witnessed a spate of beef vigilantism cases, the chief minister stopped shy of asking the Hindutva brigade to pipe down. In his early months as CM, Fadnavis also had to hastily summon back a circular regarding invoking sedition charges against critics of the political establishment. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have already declared that Fadnavis will continue to be chief minister after the election.
Though he walked straight into the Maratha vortex and promised reservation to the politically significant and socially powerful community when the state witnessed mass Maratha mobilisation, a decision first stayed by the Bombay High Court, the CM proved himself to be nimble-footed. The Brahmin Fadnavis finally won over the middle-class and the poor among the Marathas by extending the reservation, for the second time, in a manner that would withstand the test of Constitutionality. It also marked the beginning of established Maratha leaders clamouring to associate with the BJP, including then Congress Opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil. In one stroke, Fadnavis had effectively silenced the big daddies of Western Maharashtra’s Maratha politics. The Marathas have been appeased, but the government’s promise of reservation to the Dhangars remains uncertain, which the CM has tried to countervail by offering them welfare sops that will cost the state abut Rs 1,000 crore.
Those watching Fadnavis will see how, and if, in the years ahead, he galvanises the BJP cadre to begin a silent, devious campaign for a Shiv Sena-mukt Maharashtra. For five years now, the Sena played in-house Opposition, taking up cudgels with the BJP on everything from farmer suicides to demonetisation, forcing an embarrassing cancellation of a concert by Ghulam Ali in Mumbai, spraying ink on the face of columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni. Now, the Sena tiger has accepted a lower than ever seat share in the pre-poll alliance — 124 seats to the BJP’s 164. For the BJP, it was a bloodless coup by Fadnavis who has maintained a cordial public relationship with the Thackerays.
The other Thackeray, Raj, though fresh from the popularity of his ‘arre laava re toh video’ speeches lampooning the Union government, has anyway been pushed to the fringes — his party won just one seat in the 2014 Assembly election.
As chief minister, Fadnavis has taken tough decisions others in his seat baulked at, including the go-ahead to simultaneously rip open scores of kilometres of roads across the financial capital to build a metro rail network that was on the drafting board since the 1980s. It was an audacious move, and while Mumbaiites grumble in traffic pile-ups everyday, not many are shy of admitting the megapolis needed the hard love. In contrast to previous governments that treaded over-cautiously, saddled by coalition concerns and long litigation on major infrastructure projects, Fadnavis has brushed off doubts, egging on a young team of outsourced OSDs and interns in a ‘war room’ for these projects.
Even seasoned bureaucrats were taken aback when Fadnavis chose to reappoint Radheshyam Mopalwar, a 1995 batch IAS officer who faced serious corruption charges for years, upon his superannuation. Mopalwar, who was given a clean chit before his reappointment, now oversees Fadnavis’s pet project, the Rs 55,000-crore Samruddhi Corridor or the ‘communication super expressway’ connecting Nagpur and Mumbai.
Now, as his government defends its decision to axe over 2,000 trees overnight in Mumbai’s Aarey, apparently in a ruse to present a fait accompli when the opposite camp inevitably went to court, it is ally Shiv Sena that is left smarting — Aaditya Thackeray opposed the chopping of trees, but the party tied itself in knots with the Sena-controlled Tree Authority having first given the nod.
Those close to him say he is briefed by top intelligence and police officials regularly, sometimes every day. He is known to be a hands-on, no-nonsense and pro-development leader, far ahead of the others in the pack, including his handpicked confidants such as, notably, Girish Mahajan who emerged as a major trouble-shooter.
From being the youngest mayor at 27 in any Indian city through four terms as MLA from Nagpur South West, the CM’s political journey is dotted with many milestones, but insiders say it is the Mahajanadesh rallies that turned him into a real leader of the masses. “Whether it was drought-hit or flood-ravaged areas, people came to hear him and repose their hope in his leadership,” says BJP general secretary and chief coordinator Sujit Singh Thakur.
BJP parliamentarian Poonam Mahajan, who has known him since the very start of her career, says, “He is by far one of the sharpest people in Indian politics today. Devendraji pays attention to detail and has mastered the art of getting the most out of both, administration and the BJP as an organisation.”
At his poll rallies, he reels off a list of works done or initiated — Rs 50,000 crore credited directly into farmers’ bank accounts under various schemes in five years (the Opposition provided Rs 20,000 crore in 15 years, he claims); a record loan waiver worth Rs 23,000 crore to 50 lakh farmers; 30,000 km of rural roads under Mukhya Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojna (no state government has ever completed 10,000 km roads in five years, he further claims); work in progress on 20,000 km of national highways and 10,000 km of state highways; drinking water schemes for 18,000 villages in five years; seven lakh homes ready and 10 lakh under construction under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna; various irrigation and river-linking schemes.
Congress’s Ashok Chavan says more should have been delivered with such a wide political mandate. “Nothing has been delivered, there are only tall promises. Elections have become a marketing strategy for the BJP,” Chavan told The Sunday Express, adding that in village after village, farmers say they have not received the farm loan waiver, or that the fine print led them to have to make large payments. Also, for all the hand-shaking at Davos and the red carpet treatment for investors, industrial development has remained sub par and job losses are now rising alarmingly in Maharashtra. Farmer suicides continue to grow despite this loan waiver, Chavan said. “A developed state like Maharashtra that always generated jobs is now witnessing layoffs in very large numbers. The CM is not talking about unemployment,” he added.
In August 2015, contract manufacturing and chip making giant Foxconn signed an MoU with the state, promising to invest $5 billion in the state in units that would generate employment for 50,000 people by 2020. It was just one of several non-starters in industrial development.
The many missteps notwithstanding, Fadnavis looms large over the coming Maharashtra election on October 21. Earlier this week, at the New English School ground in the tribal-dominated Sakri in Dhule, Fadnavis asked where the ‘pehelwans’ of the Congress-NCP are. “Have they already accepted defeat?” he mocked.
Shirt-sleeves rolled up, he is determined to reach the ambitious target he has set for himself — 145 seats out of 288 for the BJP alone. Together, the grand alliance or ‘Mahayuti’ of BJP, Shiv Sena, Republican Party of India (A), Rashtriya Samaj Paksha, Ryat Kranti and Shiv Sangram hope to cross 220. “I am not claiming we have resolved all problems. I am aware of plenty of problems that have to be pursued ahead. But I can state with absolute certainty that work in all core sectors done in five years of my regime is at least double than that done in 15 years of Congress-NCP’s tenure,” he tells an enthusiastic crowd.
Coming barely six months after the landslide NDA win at the Centre and with the Congress and NCP scrambling for a lost foothold, the poll result may be foregone. The interest now lies in the numbers as the BJP aims for the halfway mark alone, including how close to the wall the BJP pushes the Shiv Sena.
Not everyone is bedazzled, and BJP candidates admit citizens are tiring of empty promises on the economy. The Sena called the Fadnavis government’s overnight felling of trees in Aarey a symptom of its authoritarianism. But none of that matters. The pollsters are busy at work. Wife Amruta, having been muted in her appearances over the past few months after murmurs of her flouting protocol at a function, will now re-emerge by his side as he gets into the down and dirty of the election campaign. Having done full justice to the 2014 slogan “Delhi mein Narendra, Maharashtra mein Devendra”, the Maharashtra CM is getting to work on the idea of a “shat pratishat BJP”.