It’s all about Devendra Fadnavis

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. (PTI photo)

Just as the 2014 and to some extent, the 2019 elections were about Narendra Modi, the election to the Maharashtra’s Assembly appears to be more about Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and less about the polls. The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally, the Shiv Sena, in the 2019 state Assembly elections on October 21 seems to be a fait accompli. So what exactly has been Fadnavis’ contribution to propelling the BJP to a dominant position in Maharashtra?
 
Finding a face in Fadnavis

As a precursor to the polls, Fadnavis embarked on a state-wide ‘mahajanadesh yatra’. He has clearly become the face of the BJP in what was once a Congress-dominated state, fattened on a base of rich cooperative organisations. But all that has faded into the past in a matter of five years after the BJP won 122 seats it contested on its own while the Shiv Sena managed 63 (out of a total 288 assembly seats) in 2014.  
 
Call it optics or strategy, but the rise of Fadnavis – from a modest and articulate three-time MLA from Nagpur to a chief minister backed by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine – has the stamp of a well-thought out political makeover.

As with Modi, Fadnavis’ rise too is based on a record of ‘achievements’ such as rural roads, loan waivers, jobs and houses, which he tends to reel out. 
 
He was chosen, as many articles have reiterated, even though he hails from a Brahmin minority. Yes, and that he dared do what no Congress chief minister had done – give the dominant Marathas reservation as Other Backward Classes, an issue which threatened to polarise the state and break its surface calm. He is very much the BJP central leadership’s man in Maharashtra and that is where his powers flow from. 
 
A test case was the 2019 elections, where the state was crippled by a severe drought, and a poor administrative response. Yet in the Marathwada region, where few villages had water, it was not scarcity or suicide that mattered, but Modi’s promise of national security. Privately people were ruing the lack of water, drought and shallow promises but the votes sang a different tune, reducing the Congress to a single seat in the state. 
 
This time the BJP’s poll plank is the abrogation of Article 370 and how good it is for the Kashmiri people. Clearly the pitch is for the party’s dream realised in J&K, not development, farm suicides or drought! Accompanying this nationalistic narrative is a local mascot who is Mr Clean. 
 
The BJP, ever one for projecting what is not, has successfully projected Fadnavis as an able administrator who has kept the state free of violence, has attracted huge amounts of Foreign Direct Investment and created jobs in the IT sector. What is often glossed over is that while this year’s state budget promised many sops in the rural sector and statues of venerated leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lokmanya Tilak, Maharashtra’s debt has risen by 14 per cent to a staggering Rs 4.7 lakh crore. Meanwhile, farm suicides continue unabated and the agrarian crisis is only deepening.
 
Changed political dynamics 

Just as the polls are drawing near, the Aarey Colony issue threatened to puncture holes in this facade of good governance. At the root of the matter is the metro car shed spread over 30-odd hectares in Aarey (in north Mumbai), which is contiguous with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, but is not a designated forest (though it is home to 27 adivasi villages and wild leopards.) The government maintained this is not a forest, and showed callous disregard for any democratic rights. It cordoned off Aarey and cut 2000-odd trees in the dead of the night, without waiting for the protestors to approach the Supreme Court against the High Court order which upheld the cutting of the trees.
 
Even the Shiv Sena which supported the protestors on the Aarey issue, and whose young leader Aaditya Thackeray is projected as the future chief minister, was forced to keep a distance from the issue. As a junior partner in the alliance, with an allotment of 124 seats, the Sena cannot afford to cross the BJP. At 29, he becomes the first Thackeray to contest an election from a safe seat in Worli (central Mumbai), but the party has not moved beyond its identity politics which it banks on for votes.  
 
In a bid to deflate the Opposition, the BJP has poached some stalwarts from the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party – Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Udayanraje Bhonsale, Narayan Rane, Ganesh Naik, and even Vijaysingh Mohite Patil (a close associate of Sharad Pawar). It will have to contend with rebels, and it has expelled a few. Some leaders like Vinod Tawde, a minister in the state cabinet, have been denied tickets, and in places like Beed in Marathwada, there is open rebellion in the late Gopinath Munde’s stronghold. His daughter Pankaja may just find it difficult to keep the party together. 
 
However, not for the first time, there will be no discussion on vote banks and how Muslims or Dalits can swing the vote – they have become irrelevant. The BJP-Sena alliance has pushed Dalits and Muslims to the fringe and that is where the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Prakash Ambedkar, may find support. In the Lok Sabha polls, it came third in many constituencies and cut into the votes of the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Sena alliances. The VBA could play a role, though it remains to be seen if the party will dent the ruling alliance in any significant manner on its own.
 
As for the remaining Opposition – the Congress seems demoralised and in a disarray but the NCP’s flag is being held up by its old warhorse Sharad Pawar, whose rallies continue to draw crowds. Little is expected of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) which is also in the fray.
 
Clearly the BJP has emerged more strongly as a party of the upper castes and classes and that image enabled it to offer a strong challenge even in the Mumbai civic polls in 2017, where it won 82 seats on its own, two short of the Sena’s 84 in a 227-member house. It has reached a point where it can win substantially on its own steam, something that should worry the Shiv Sena. Fadnavis has been a constant figure through this transformation, providing the BJP with the right credentials. 
 
The BJP has also demonstrated time and again that it is the ‘mukhota’ (mask) that matters to win elections and not issues. There is no reason to believe that this will change anytime soon. 
 
(Meena Menon is an independent journalist and author based in Mumbai) 
 

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