A series of decisions by the Bharatiya Janata Party central leadership in recent days has left former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis looking isolated and weakened in a party that once projected him as Maharashtra’s fresh-face, savvy, Gen Next Hindutva leader, with potential for elevation to the national stage.
Over the last three days, the promotion of Vinod Tawde as BJP general secretary from the position of national secretary, and the nomination of Chandrashekhar Bawankule for the Maharashtra Legislative Council polls, both bete noire of Fadnavis, are being seen as sure signs that the central leadership is clipping the wings of its former poster boy, making his future as the face of the party going into the 2024 elections uncertain.
Through his term in office, Fadnavis had sidelined Tawde, former education minister, changing and trimming his
Cabinet portfolios often and finally denying the Maratha leader a ticket for the 2019 Assembly elections. Similarly, Bawankule, the former power minister and an OBC strongman in Nagpur, seen as a protege of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, was also not given a ticket, reportedly costing the BJP at least six seats in the Vidarbha region.
“The rehabilitation of Tawde and Bawankule marks the downsizing of Fadnavis. Although we are not questioning his ability or integrity, the party will revert to pragmatic politics. One-leader politics may work at the Centre under Narendra Modi but it is not going to work in Maharashtra in 2024 polls. The party cannot antagonise the OBCs and Maratha community,” said a BJP vice president, calling the decision to deny tickets to Tawde and Bawankule “a blunder”.
At the time, many had described it as a “bold decision”, but it left their constituencies confused and betrayed.
Bawankule’s nomination for the council poll is being seen by the BJP as an outreach to the Teli community in Vidarbha when the party has been seen — nationally and in Maharashtra — ducking a caste count for the enumeration of OBCs. It is also seen as strengthening the hands of Gadkari at the expense of Fadnavis.
Another leader sidelined by Fadnavis, the former state president of the BJP, Raosaheb Danve, is now Minister of State in the Ministries of Railways, Coal and Mines, at the Centre.
“Patience pays in politics. This is a loud message to every karyakarta in party,” Tawde, a seasoned politician, told The Indian Express.
Bawankule, too, was restrained. “The party has appointed me state general secretary. Now it has nominated me for council polls.Why should I sulk about what happened in past?” he said.
But Eknath Khadse, who left the BJP to join the NCP after being sidelined by Fadnavis, was not so diplomatic. “The writing on the wall is clear for one and all. It was just a matter of time. Fadnavis played dirty politics. He finished all his political competitors. This happened because he enjoyed the confidence of the central leadership. But sooner rather than later, things were bound to come to light. I quit BJP as I was tired of harassment. I left BJP only and only because of Fadnavis,”he said.
“I am happy Vinodji Tawde has become national general secretary. It is an important role which was enacted by leaders like late (Gopinath) Munde and (Pramod) Mahajan in the past,” was the only reaction from Fadnavis.
But a close aide said it was “unfair” to target Fadnavis in matters of ticket distribution or Cabinet berths as these are decided at core committee level and approved by the central leadership.
Within the BJP, the view is that after a successful five years as Chief Minister of Maharashtra during which he pushed “good governance”, Fadnavis failed to evolve as an organisational man and a team leader. When he was brought in as Maharashtra BJP president in April 2013, he was seen as unifying the traditional rival factions led by Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde.
Eight years later, party insiders blame him for the break up of the 25-year-old alliance with Shiv Sena while his hostility towards those he viewed as in-house rivals has given rise to more factionalism in the party. His open battle with Munde’s daughter Pankaja led to many red faces in the party which appeared to make amends by releasing a postal stamp in her father’s honour on June 3 this year.
On the occasion, party President J P Nadda made an impassioned speech extolling the leadership of Munde, perhaps the first sign of the party’s unhappiness with Fadnavis.
“The mistake Fadnavis made was to depend on outsiders for important issues…He relied on one Neeraj Gunde as a mediator to mend the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. He alienated all in-house experienced leaders,” said a party functionary who did not wish to be named. Praveen Darekar, from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, was made Opposition leader in the state council. Prasad Lad who joined BJP from NCP became Fadnavis’s confidante, and an all-powerful advisor. When contacted, Gunde said: “I don’t want to comment, why should I break anybody’s trust?”. Lad said it was “ridiculous” to presume that Fadnavis was “guided or misguided by a select few.” He added: “Whether it is Darekar or myself, we are just one karyakarta.” Darekar was unavailable for comment.
A section within the BJP blames these two “outsiders” for “misleading” Fadnavis after the 2019 polls, leading to the collapse of the pre-election alliance with Shiv Sena when the results were announced, and the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition that denied BJP and Fadnavis another term.
Many party leaders in Delhi are also of the view that he failed to turn the tide against the MVA, even through a year of crisis for first-time chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. “Even during the peak of the Covid pandemic in Mumbai, Fadnavis could not muster support from the public despite the state government’s mistakes,” said a BJP central leader.
Sources in the BJP hinted that Fadnavis’s role in making “revelations” in the Antilia bomb scare case and the suspicious death of Mansukh Hiren – for which Fadnavis addressed a press conference in the national capital – also did not go down well within a section of the leadership.
In April, at the height of the COVID second wave, he controversially defended a move by Lad and Darekar to source Remdesivir on behalf of the BJP from a Daman-based pharma company, even though the Covid drug, could be procured only by the government. This hardly helped the BJP’s image in the state.
Asked about Fadnavis’s management of the state unit, a party leader in Delhi quoted former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “Chhote dil se koi bada nahi hota, toote dil se koi khada nahi hota.”
Fadnavis was also tested when he was sent as campaign manager during the election in Bihar last year but he made little difference to his party’s fortunes as it barely squeezed through with a razor-thin majority.