Two key decisions taken by the central leadership of the BJP in Maharashtra in the past few days – the appointment of Vinod Tawde to the post of national general secretary and nomination of Chandrasekhar Bawankule for the Maharashtra Legislative Council polls – ahead of the Assembly polls in 2024 are being translated as measures to clip the wings of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and send out a message that the party still values its old guards.
Tawde, a former education minister, who was seen as a rival to Fadnavis for the chief minister’s post, was sidelined during the latter’s term and shuttled between portfolios, before being refused a ticket in 2019 Assembly elections. Similarly, Bawankule, a former power minister and protégé of Union minister Nitin Gadkare, who holds considerable sway among the OBC in Nagpur, was denied a ticket before the state elections.
Now that the BJP doesn’t have the backing of its long-time ally the Shiv Sena, experts say the rehabilitation of the two old timers is an attempt at “course correction” by the party to cash in on Maratha and OBC votes with Tawde belonging to the former and Bawankule hailing from the Teli community among the OBC.
Calling the denial of ticket to the two leaders in 2019, “a blunder”, a BJP vice-president told the Indian Express, that the rehabilitation of the duo sends out the message that “one-leader politics may work at the Centre under Narendra Modi but it is not going to work in Maharashtra in 2024 polls”.
Return of the old guards
While former BJP leader Eknath Khadse, left the party to join NCP, after being allegedly harassed by Fadnavis, Tawde has been applauded for his patience and restraint over the years.
“It is not in the nature of a karyakarta like me to lose patience immediately after being denied a ticket and say ‘I am leaving the party’. Do the work that is given to you and if you do that work, then it will be noted. This has become even clearer to the karyakartas by this elevation of mine,” Tawde told reporters recently.
A native of Mumbai’s Girgaon, Tawde, in a career spanning four decades, rose in ranks, from an ABVP worker to the organising secretary of the Mumbai Central Zone. Before being appointed as the education minister in Fadnavis’ cabinet 2014, he served as the general secretary of the Maharashtra BJP (1995), president of the Mumbai BJP, leader of opposition in Maharashtra’s Legislative Council (2011-2014) and an MLA from Mumbai’s Borivali assembly constituency (2014).
In 2016, he courted controversy after being accused by the Opposition of allegedly being associated with a for-profit company, in violation of the code of conduct for ministers. He was gradually sidelined, when Fadnavis in 2016 reallocated the medical education portfolio to Girish Mahajan, and eventually dropped from the 2019 assembly polls.
Reports said Tawde was also rehabilitated on the virtue of his organisational strength building skills, a key requirement for the party ahead of elections in several states.
A three-time MLA from Nagpur’s Kamptee assembly constituency, Bawankule’s nomination for the assembly council polls is being seen as the party’s attempts to woo the Teli community in Vidharbha and appease the BJP Maharashtra faction led by Nitin Gadkari.
Bawankule, has served as the general secretary and president of the party’s Nagpur district unit and as the secretary of the state unit, since joining the BJP in the 1990s.
Where Fadnavis faltered
The rehabilitation of the two leaders is being directly attributed to Fadnavis’ ‘gross mistakes’ – of failing at inclusivity and eliminating rivals, that gave way to factionalism in the party; failing to evolve as an organisational leader and breaking up the 25-year-old tie up between the BJP and the Shiv Sena.
When Fadnavis was appointed as the state BJP president in 2013, political observers thought, he was banked on to act as a bridge between the two factions led by Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde. But, since he took over as the chief minister, Fadnavis embarked on a mission to politically eliminate all potential rivals, which in turn resulted in doing away with the representative of both the Gadkari and Munde camps, senior political analyst Vikek Bhavsar told The Hindu. His tiffs with Munde’s daughter Pankaja also embarrassed the party on several occasions.
His dependence on a coterie of ‘imported’ leaders – Girish Mahajan, Ram Kadam, and Prasad Lad – while ignoring his regional colleagues, has been a major bone of contention among party men.
While Fadnavis made Praveen Darekar, who was earlier in the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the Opposition leader in the state council, Prasad Lad, a former NCP leader became his confidante and advisor.
The coterie has been accused by party insiders of breaking up the BJP’s pre-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena.
Fadnavis has also been blamed for failing to turn the tables against the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, which at its weakest during the COVID-19 pandemic when Maharashtra was the state logging the highest daily infections.
Experts say, now the party wants to control the damage by making small amends, the latest example being the release of a postal stamp in the honour of Munde on June 3 this year, followed by the rehabilitation of Tawde and Bawankule.
Bhavsar said, the changes in the Maharashtra unit are signs for Fadnavis to adopt to a more inclusive style of functioning in the future and “stop intra-party politicking”. The ‘snub’ to Fadnavis is also an indication that his candidature for the chief minister’s post in the 2024 Assembly elections is quite uncertain.