Devendra Fadnavis - The Rise of a Potential Chief Minister

Published: October 19, 2014 08:16 IST
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(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which will be published in 2015.)

If exit polls and the mood on the ground is to be believed, it will be a Super Sunday for the BJP, delivering the Maharashtra sequel to May's landslide victory in the Lok Sabha election. If that happens, the top man in Maharashtra could well be Devendra Fadnavis, the articulate 44-year-old state President of the BJP. Mr Fadnavis is described by some as a consensus candidate; it is more important, perhaps, to see him as the choice of the RSS.

Fadnavis is the former mayor of Nagpur which accommodates the RSS headquarters.

Much like his appointment for his current position as state President, Fadnavis was roped in to lead the party in Maharashtra in 2013 to placate the warring Munde-Gadkari factions. Fadnavis shared a great relationship with the late Gopinath Munde, the OBC face of the state for the BJP. But he astutely made good with Nitin Gadkari right after his appointment to end the bitter tussle between the heavyweights in the state.

The then BJP President Rajnath Singh, who, like Fadnavis, had been the RSS's choice for the post of Party President following internal factionalism, had ceded to the Sangh's demand to make Fadnavis in charge of Maharashtra, a state where the BJP had been rejected by voters for three consecutive terms and had played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena which wanted, among other senior partner entitlements, the post of Chief Minister.

Nitin Gadkari, who preceded Rajnath Singh as party president, was not too keen on Fadnavis for state president and had lobbied for a loyalist from his camp. But the RSS diktat ensured that he fell in line, and Fadnavis took over as the party chief in the state in April 2013 from a low-profile Sudhir Mugantiwar, an MLA from Ballarpur.

Hailing from a family which has deep roots within the Sangh Parivar, Fadnavis got his early political education under the tutelage of his father, Gangadharrao Fadnavis, an active member of what was then the Jana Sangh. Armed with a degree in law and later a post-graduate degree in business management from Nagpur University, he began his political career with the student wing of the BJP in Nagpur in the year 1989 going on to become a corporator of the Nagpur civic body in 1992 at the age of 22.

He became a strong voice in most state-led agitations by the RSS, including the campaign for a separate state of Vidarbha. He was only 27 when he became the youngest mayor of Nagpur in 1997 and later won three consecutive assembly elections. His reputation as a clean leader, his easy rapport with senior members of the parivaar ensured that he remained in the good books of the leadership. In fact, if sources in the state BJP are to be believed, it was based on the RSS directive that both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah conveyed to other state leaders that for this election in Maharashtra, Fadnavis would have the last word on local issues and decisions.

A regular on TV debates , the media savvy Fadnavis who is also the author of two books on economics which has been his area of interest, has been a vocal champion for the separate state of Vidarbha calling it an ideological and not a political issue, although Modi and the Sangh have remained non-committal about their stand. BJP sources say if the party were at some point to carve out Vidarbha as a state with Nagpur as its capital, Fadnavis' commitment to the cause would make him the front-runner for the post of Chief Minister.

However, the road ahead for Fadnavis may not be easy to tread should he be made the Chief Minister of an integrated Maharashtra. His predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress, was also seen as clean in a state where politics and scams have been vastly inter-twined; Chavan's 'Mr.Clean' image  invited the ire of most of his colleagues and ministers from the state, as also the very powerful real estate and industrial lobby.

Another apprehension about Fadnavis is that, like Nitin Gadkari, he is a Brahmin - in Maharashtra's caste calculation does not have a formidable base. Also, some within the BJP feel that Fadnavis, if he is made Chief Minister, will be indebted to the RSS and have no say in running the state government with all important decisions being relayed from Delhi by Modi, or from Nagpur by the Sangh.

Fadnavis may also confront the resentment and potentially, rebellion, from Pankaja Munde who has made herself his immediate rival with her claim for the post of Chief Minister which she has based on her father's legacy and the strong support she enjoys in the Marathwada region and amongst the OBC community. He will also have to face rivalry from other promising candidates from Maharashtra including Eknath Khadse another OBC leader and Vinod Tawde a Maratha who had earlier expressed their displeasure over his candidature. His situation is uncannily similar to Prithviraj Chavan who was parachuted to Mumbai from 10 Janpath in Delhi, despite opposition from state leaders like Ashok Chavan and Narayan Rane; consequently, he spent most of his two terms fighting internal rebellion.

The RSS, on the other hand, will have exacting expectations from him; the organization, with its origins in Maharashtra, has waited long for its shot at power via the BJP. There are those who feel it will not be shy about serving orders and expecting Fadnavis to deliver them while containing of internal rebellion within the party.

Should the BJP install Fadnavis as Chief Minister, it will mark a generational change for both the party and the state, bringing with it a sense of optimism. But the picturesque Mantralaya is no Nagpur, and Mumbai, the financial capital, is the liberal face of the country. Fadnavis will have to deliver on the promises of development made by Modi, for Maharashtra in its selection of the BJP over other parties, has given its mandate against corruption, parochialism and the politics of identity.

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