Just as a rather unexciting election campaign was coming to an end in Maharashtra, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said his party “doesn’t fight with kids”. The veteran leader was hitting out at the state chief minister, who much to Pawar’s chagrin has been the new unbeatable kid on the block for the past five years now despite his tenure being marked by several issues—unemployment, farmers’ distress, the controversial Mumbai Metro-3 car shed project in Aarey, etc.
But what perhaps makes Devendra Gangadharrao Fadnavis’s political rise astonishing is the fact that the 49-year-old managed to emerge as the most popular leader in a state otherwise awash with Modi magic.
Hailing from Nagpur, Fadnavis’s ideologies have been shaped by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which oversaw his rise through the ranks.
A law graduate, he started with the party’s youth wing in 1989, became a corporator at the age of 22 in 1992, and went on to become the youngest mayor of Nagpur Municipal Corporation in 1997. This was followed by an unbroken four-term stint as an MLA increasing his winning margin every term, before becoming the chief minister of the state. And now, he is eyeing a return.
Although Modi and his party leaders have been very vocal in condemning ‘dynasty politics’, Fadnavis comes from a well-knit political family. His father Gangadhar Fadnavis was an MLC and part of the Jan Sangh while his mother Saritha Fadnavis was the former director of Vidarbha Housing Credit Society, and aunt Shobha Fadnavis a former minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government in 1995-99.
Fadnavis is also the second Brahmin after Manohar Joshi of ally Shiv Sena to become the chief minister of the state, adding to the clout of the otherwise politically less dominant community in Maharashtra politics. The other top leader from the community is Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister for road transport and a former BJP president. He too is from Nagpur and holds considerable influence in the region and among the RSS leadership.
His quick rise also meant he had the backing of both the BJP and the RSS. Despite lacking a mass connect, he has the credibility which both the organisations have endorsed.
Besides, he is described as ‘Ajatashatru’ (a person with no enemy) by his family, friends and the RSS cadre.
“He had that thing in him—the rebellious nature and the attitude to go after an unfinished task and complete it. He doesn’t shirk away from responsibilities,” says his brother and political well-wisher, Ashish Fadnavis.
Explaining his rebellious nature, Ashish says Devendra Fadnavis, who used to study at Indira Gandhi convent, refused to go to the school named after the former prime minister after their father was imprisoned during Emergency for participating in anti-government protests.
Ashish further says that his brother was married to the ideologies of RSS and considered former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and fellow-Maharashtrian, the late Pramod Mahajan, his idols.
“Atalji’s vision inspired him. And Mahajan, a good family friend, nurtured his political ambitions and thoughts even as he used to see and learn how our father patiently listened to people who came to air their problems at our doorstep,” Ashish says.
Fadnavis’s political career would have taken a different turn had Gadkari accepted the party’s request to make him a Lok Sabha candidate in the 2009 elections. Had the BJP won the polls, he would perhaps have become a cabinet minister.
But the course changed with the BJP losing the state elections in 2009 and the RSS showing resentment over Fadnavis not getting a ticket. Besides, Fadnavis was groomed by former minister Gopinath Munde, a rival of Gadkari within the BJP. The RSS had hoped to prop up Fadnavis to end the tussle between Gadkari and Munde and reduce their clout.
While there was some trust deficit after Mahajan’s death in 2006, the vacuum was filled by Munde, who too died in 2014. And Fadnavis emerged handy in filling the slot for the party and for the RSS to push forth.
When The Federal asked Vikas Telang, the office in-charge of RSS headquarters in Nagpur, on how Fadnavis could beat Gadkari and whether the RSS supported him more than the Union transport minister, he unequivocally said it is the sheer hard work, administrative skills and dedication to the ideology that led Fadnavis to move beyond certain state leaders. He, however, did not want to compare Fadnavis and Gadkari.
His brother Ashish and CM’s friend Sandip Joshi, chairman of Maharashtra Small Scale Industrial Development Corporation, say Fadnavis always considered Gadkari his guru and never rejected any of his proposals or ideas.
Playing up local issues, not nationalism
With a clean image, Fadnavis is known to be a down-to-earth person and is popular in Nagpur for development works carried out as a mayor, much before he became the chief minister. While he did not have the mass appeal and rose to power with the Modi wave in 2014, he left no stone unturned in capitalising on his power in the five years.
Even after he attained the top post, Nagpur got its fair share. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Dhirubai Ambani Aerospace Park, attracting investment from tech giants like Infosys, Wipro and Tech Mahindra, all happened during the past five years.
A media savvy chief minister, Fadnavis, unlike Modi, has always addressed questions raised by journalists.
“He is always open to dialogues and tries to understand what the problem is before offering a blanket solution,” says Joshi. “He never could say no to people directly. Always attempted to solve the problem.”
Although Modi spoke about the abrogation of Article 370 in every rally in Maharashtra, Fadnavis, who endorsed the move, was careful enough to not overdo it. He rather limited his talks to local issues and promised people development.
In Beed, one of the many water-scarce regions in Maharashtra, he spoke at length about making the state drought-free. He said the cabinet had okayed the Marathwada water grid project and the state would soon lift 167 tmc of water from rivers in the Konkan region which flow to the sea and link them with all the dams in Marathwada region.
Fadnavis has handled every crisis suitably, whether it was the Maratha reservation or the drought, and did not allow the opposition to gain ground. Even in the last round of election campaigning, he went on to say that his party had not given up on the separate statehood demand and they would announce it when the time is right. This comes despite its ally Shiv Sena having staunchly opposed the idea.
Fadnavis could do this because of his sheer political acumen in negotiating power politics. The BJP, which got 120 seats—double that of Sena in the 2014 Assembly elections—was able to forge an alliance post polls because of the friendship he and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray enjoyed.
The fall of Sena, Congress
Unlike in 1995, when Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s brand of Hindutva gave a stiff competition to the BJP, prompting the latter to join forces to find a foothold in Maharashtra, in 2019, the situation is quite the opposite. The Sena is at the mercy of the BJP.
However, Fadnavis’s political bete noire in Sena, who did not wish to be named, says the party [Sena] had succumbed to the BJP in 2014 and it was not a right choice then. But now, they are trying to make the best out of it.
“Had Sena remained in opposition, it would have become a strong party in the present political scenario. But they lost by joining hands with the BJP. They are trapped and trying to bargain to stay relevant,” says political analyst Suhas Palshikar.
Palshikar adds that Fadnavis did not have to do anything for the fall of the opposition. And it did not add to his rise either. It was just sheer timing that pulled them down.
“While the Congress’s central leadership is showing no willingness to take on the opposition role or take up crucial matters plaguing the state, the NCP which is directionless has no stalwarts except Sharad Pawar to mobilise cadre,” he says.
Even though the 73-year-old Congressman Prithviraj Chavan could have led a strong opposition, analysts say strong contenders against him in his constituency in Karad made him not to venture out of his home turf.
Surendra Jondhale, a political analyst and head of the Department of Civics and Politics in Mumbai University, says, “Prithviraj Chavan could have best led the campaign against the BJP-Sena. But he’s struggling to retain his seat with a Congress veteran standing against him as an independent, and the BJP has fielded a promising young chap (Atul Bhosle),” he says.
Jondhale adds that with widespread resentment in the flood-hit and drought-prone regions—the anger and frustration of people in Marathwada and Vidarbha against the ruling government—the Congress and the NCP could have very well gained. However, their failure to do that has left people with no choice.
“People could be legitimately unhappy with the ruling government. But when the opposition seems incompetent, particularly with a rudderless Congress after the recent Lok Sabha debacle, it is unlikely that people will look for an alternative outside the ruling party again,” says psephologist Sandeep Shastri.
While his political opponents have lost out because of their own doing, making it easy for him, Fadnavis has made it difficult for anyone to point fingers at him.
On his national political ambitions, his brother Ashish says, “Although he doesn’t ask anyone for a specific post, like every politician he has wanted to attain the pinnacle of power and surely he’d move beyond Maharashtra one day.”
But it’s Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe who seems to best describe Fadnavis’s coming of age and emergence as the game-changer. “With his dexterity in handling organisational matters and dedication to the party besides his governance skills, Devendraji is no longer a junior leader by any standards.”