Although a government headed by the 44-year-old Devendra Fadnavis has taken oath of the office in Maharashtra, the political tug-of-war between two estranged allies, the BJP and the Shiv Sena, is far from over. Fadnavis and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray spent the past few days visiting temples and seeking divine blessings, while their trusted aides remained tight-lipped in a bid to narrow their differences.
Fadnavis returned home to a hero’s welcome in Nagpur and offered prayers at the Ganesh Tekdi temple before beginning a new political innings as the chief minister of the richest state in the country. Thackeray, meanwhile, held a show of strength with all 63 of his MLAs at the Ekvira Devi temple in Lonavala near Pune. His father, the late Bal Thackeray, had paid a similar visit to the temple after the Sena-BJP coalition formed its first government in the state in 1995.
Whether Uddhav’s visit was a precursor to his party eventually joining the Fadnavis government was hotly contested but his cryptic message on the occasion left some political commentators mystified. “Today,” Thackeray said, “I have come to Ekvira Devi’s shrine with 63 MLAs but very soon I will come here with more than 180 MLAs.”
At the time of going to the press, Fadnavis was confident of winning a trust vote on the floor of the Assembly, scheduled most likely on 12 November. However, he left open the possibility of expanding his Council of Ministers to include the Shiv Sena’s nominees following the trust vote. For its part, the Sena kept up the pressure on the BJP and was looking to extract maximum concessions from the latter. Given their ideological affinities, and a 25-year-long history of partnership, a coalition of compulsion between the BJP and the Shiv Sena is eminently plausible but neither party wants the compulsions of running a coalition to cramp its space.
Clearly, the rules of engagement are being rewritten as the BJP, under its president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, charts a radically different course from the yesteryears. Fadnavis has made it amply clear that Modi wants him (Fadnavis) to pursue a development-oriented ageNDA and not worry about saving his government.
Fault lines are already emerging: The Shiv Sena favours a united Maharashtra, whereas the BJP is not opposed to carving out a new state of Vidarbha from Maharashtra. (Incidentally, Fadnavis hails from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region.) The Sena criticised Fadnavis for making a statement about Vidarbha during his grand welcome at Nagpur. The party’s mouthpiece Saamna suggested that carving out Vidarbha from Maharashtra is like separating a son from the mother. Another sticking point is the allocation of portfolios in the new state Cabinet.
For the record, Anant Geete, Shiv Sena’s lone nominee in Prime Minister Modi’s council of ministers, continues to retain his portfolio of the Union Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. It is an indicator that the Sena-BJP ties have not reached breaking point. Another sign of the shape of things to come was the possibility of an expansion of the Union Cabinet to accommodate new ministers, not only from the BJP but also from the Shiv Sena. Suresh Prabhu, a senior Shiv Sena leader who held the portfolios of power, environment and industries in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, is being seen as an likely addition. Prabhu is currently serving as the Prime Minister’s Sherpa for the G-20 Summit. The Cabinet expansion was expected to take place before the Maharashtra Assembly met on 10 November.
Bridging the gap
The first signs of a thaw became visible when Uddhav attended Fadnavis’ swearing in ceremony at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on 31 October. In the days leading up to the ceremony, the Sena had dropped hints that it might skip the function, miffed as it was at the BJP’s attitude towards it. It was only after Amit Shah and a clutch of other BJP leaders personally spoke to Thackeray over the telephone that the latter relented. In spite of the NCP’s offer of unconditional support to the Fadnavis government, sources in the BJP insist that they want the Sena onboard. Turning to the NCP could raise uncomfortable questions for the BJP at a time when some NCP leaders are facing charges of corruption. Former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, NCP state president Sunil Tatkare and former PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal have cases of corruption registered against them. In fact, the Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau has proposed an open inquiry against the three (Pawar and Tatkare with regard to an irrigation scam and Bhujbal in the ‘Maharashtra Sadan’ controversy).
Talks between the two allies are said to revolve around a formula where the new government could comprise 32 ministerial berths out of which 20 would remain with the BJP, 10 would go to the Shiv Sena and the remainder could be devolved to alliance partners, from among the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Rashtriya Samaj Paksh, Shiv Sangram and the Republican Party of India (Athawale faction). For its part, the Sena is also eyeing the posts of the deputy chief minister and the Speaker of the Maharashtra Assembly.
BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari says, “Nothing has been decided about sharing of ministerial berths yet. We will make it public once it is decided. We are still to decide on alliance partners. The core committee of the Maharashtra BJP and the central parliamentary board will take a decision in this regard together.” Bhandari amplified it by saying that while the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Rashtriya Samaj Paksh, Shiv Sangram and the Republican Party of India (A) were a “part and parcel” of the BJP alliance in the state, a decision on adding “new friends” was pending.
If the BJP and the Shiv Sena chose to be circumspect, the RSS was optimistic of the Sena joining the government in the state. “The two parties are natural partners and will definitely come together to form a government. Who is elder and who is younger doesn’t matter. What matters is that both are brothers, and in coming days, everything will be sorted out,” says Madhav Govind Vaidya, a senior RSS ideologue. He adds, “There is nothing wrong in [the Sena’s] demand,” citing the 1995 precedent, when the Sena kept the chief minister’s post and the BJP got the deputy CM’s post, to suggest that today when the BJP occupies the CM’s post, the deputy CM’s post could go to the Sena.
An uneasy coalition
While the BJP’s wins in the Maharashtra and the Haryana Assembly polls have come as a shot in the arm for the Modi-Shah duo, the manner in which those victories were achieved have come in for scrutiny by the RSS.
The blurring of lines between the party, represented by Shah, and the government, headed by Modi, has caused concern among some in the RSS. While the dissonance has come in handy for some of Modi’s detractors within the party and the government, who feel suffocated by his autocratic style of functioning, a section of the RSS fears that the BJP’s ideological moorings could get diluted, or worse, compromised, if the current leadership continues to enjoy runaway freedoms or if the delicate balance of power between the party and government on the one hand, and the government and the RSS, on the other hand is upset.This has implications for regional parties in general and the BJP’s allies in the NDA in particular. There is already a view that riding on the Modi wave, the BJP could ride roughshod over smaller regional parties in states that will go to polls in the next few years. Rumblings of discontent are being heard from a section of the BJP cadres in Punjab, where Assembly elections will be held in 2017.
Just as the BJP and the Shiv Sena traded accusations during the Maharashtra election, in Haryana, the BJP trained its guns on the alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). The BJP’s overtures to the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda led by Gurmeet Ram Rahim before the Haryana elections could potentially change the dynamic of the ruling BJP-SAD alliance in Punjab.
However, the sad has been quick to correct the perception of a drift in its relationship with the BJP. A SAD leader said that there were “no issues” between the two parties and that the Badals were in regular touch with Amit Shah and others in the BJP. He asserted that unlike an “unreasonable” Shiv Sena, the SAD was a “reasonable partner”. “We will be fighting the Delhi Assembly election jointly,” he added.
From Dharampeth to Malabar Hill
Forty-four year-old Devendra Fadnavis is the new poster boy of the BJP in Maharashtra. This is the first time since its inception in April 1980, in Mumbai, that the party has laid claim to the chief minister’s chair. With Amit Shah at the helm of the party’s affairs and Fadnavis as its president in Maharashtra, the BJP bagged more than 100 seats — a feat never achieved by a single party since 1995. Fadnavis is the second youngest chief minister of the state after ncp chief Sharad Pawar, who was 38 when he became the chief minister in 1978. His father Gangadhar Rao Fadnavis was a Jan Sangh leader and a BJP mlc from Nagpur.
Fadnavis started his political career as a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in 1989 and strengthened his political base by attending RSS shakhas in Nagpur. Fadnavis got his first public position at the age of 22 when he was elected as a corporator in the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. After his re-election, he became the youngest mayor of the corporation at the age of 27. There has been no looking back for the boy from Dharampeth after that. He won his first Assembly election in 1999 from the Nagpur (West) constituency and has contested and won on three occasions from the Nagpur (South West) constituency before making his way to Varsha — the chief minister’s official residence at the Malabar Hill in Mumbai.
Fadnavis is a law graduate from the Nagpur University and is a known orator. He is known to have a clean image and an understanding of government and budgetary processes. Though soft-spoken, he is known for his fiery interventions in the Assembly. He had taken on the former Congress-NCP coalition government for various scams (Adarsh, irrigation, etc). He rose to prominence after he was made the state BJP president in 2013. He was close to the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde.
Yadu Joshi, the president of the Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists and a childhood friend of Fadnavis, recalls him as a firebrand leader, who would organise protests in support of the underprivileged. “I remember one protest Devendra had organised for demanding land rights for slum dwellers of Kamgar Nagar and Tukdoji Nagar in Nagpur. He raised the issue in the Assembly, too, and eventually succeeded in getting those people their rights,” Joshi says. “He was instrumental in getting scholarships for obc students. He has followers across all sections of society and has friends across party lines.”
Pravin Datke, the mayor of Nagpur, worked with Fadnavis during their time in the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Nagpur. Datke says, “He is a humble man. He is where he is today because of his hard work. He has exposed various scams. Some people may think that there is a rift between Nitin Gadkari and him but he has always considered Gadkari as his leader.”
At an election rally in Nagpur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was thankful to the people of Nagpur for giving Maharashtra a brilliant and committed leader like Devendra Fadnavis.
— Prateek Goyal