As the BJP’s top leadership gathers in Hyderabad for its national executive, it will have one more trophy to display on its wall: The state of Maharashtra. Even though former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis played a key role in hunting down over two-thirds of Sena cubs from the Thackeray den, he may not be striking happy poses in the aftermath. For, he has been deprived yet again, this time of the coveted prize of chief ministership. In a day of dramatic developments, the real surprise was not the BJP’s choice of chief ministerial candidate, Shiv Sena defector Eknath Shinde, but the public snub to Fadnavis, the BJP’s tallest leader in Maharashtra. The clearly avoidable rebuff under full media glare has the BJP’s, to use their new catchphrase, eco-system, rattled, while leaving the overall political establishment baffled.
Before we dig deeper in the present political minefield, revisiting the state’s recent electoral history will help us understand the ongoing high-stakes battle.
It was in 2019 that the BJP’s central leadership first appeared cold to Fadnavis’s efforts to placate the Shiv Sena, with whom it had an alliance, after the BJP fell short of a majority to form the government on its own. In the 288-member House, the BJP under Fadnavis’s leadership had bagged 105 seats while the Sena had 56. The combine easily crossed the half-way mark of 144. However, the Sena’s claim on chief ministership became a contentious issue, which eventually scuttled the saffron alliance’s chance to retain power. The Sena, interestingly, at no point looked unmanageable. A call or two from PM Narendra Modi or Amit Shah would have been enough to placate Uddhav Thackeray. But it never came, even as the BJP leadership was seen taking every possible step to retain Haryana that went to polls along with Maharashtra.
The BJP’s reluctance was striking vis-a-vis its efforts to grab Haryana that sends just a dozen MPs to Parliament, while ignoring Maharashtra that has four times the number of parliamentary seats of Haryana. It was inexplicable that the BJP’s central leadership was seen engaging much smaller parties, even trying to win over new allies in the northern state and at the same paying no heed to its 30-year partner in Maharashtra and at the Centre. That was the first visible sign that all was not well between Fadnavis and the BJP’s top duo. But why would the BJP risk losing Maharashtra?
The answer to this question is directly linked to this week’s developments. Besides, it also underlines how the central leaderships of national parties, be it the Congress or BJP, view leaders from Maharashtra.
First, about the Sena-BJP tussle. The BJP’s strained relationship with the Sena after the former developed its home-grown Hindu Hriday Samrat is no secret. Till Narendra Modi arrived on the scene, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray was seen to be the Hindu heart-throb. His cordial relations with the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani helped both parties stay together for well over three decades. However, after the rise of Modi-Shah, the BJP became more and more unwilling to accommodate any other partner in its Hindutva space. This resulted in friction between the two saffron siblings. Such was the BJP’s zeal to eliminate anyone sharing its Hindutva plank that it had no inhibition in showing willingness even to forge a truce with the NCP to deprive the Sena. With this in mind, the BJP’s central leaders wanted Fadnavis to go solo in the 2019 assembly elections.
In turn, it was Fadnavis’s mistake not to take the cue from the Centre while insisting on a pre-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena. The Uddhav Thackeray-led outfit was a bigger critic for the Fadnavis government than the Opposition. The Sena’s politics of having the cake and eating it too had the BJP leadership enraged. Still, due to Fadnavis’s insistence and the RSS’s wish to avoid a division of Hindu votes, both parties went to polls together only to become each other’s foe in the post-poll scenario. The Sena, citing the 50-50 power-sharing agreement with the BJP, staked its claim on chief ministership, which the latter was unwilling to part with. Thus came into being the three-party alliance in November 2019 wherein the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress came together to keep the BJP away. Since then the unforgiving BJP was waiting to settle scores with its former partner and punish the Thackerays.
It did exactly that by installing Eknath Shinde, a veteran from the Thackeray court, in the chief minister’s chair. And while doing so it snubbed its own man, Fadnavis, for his decision to go with the Sena in the 2019 elections. In the process, it also sent a message down the line not to take any position for granted. For the last two-and-half years, Fadnavis had become the face of the state BJP and was on a mission to dislodge the three-party alliance government. He and everyone around him assumed Fadnavis would be chief minister once the Uddhav Thackeray-led government was toppled. It was, however, not to be.
Politically, too, it suits the BJP to have Shinde, a Maratha, as the face of its alliance government instead of Fadnavis, a Brahmin. Fadnavis’s government had to face Maratha wrath and it was believed that the Sharad Pawar-led NCP was instigating the politically dominant community. Shinde’s rise, the BJP thinks, will neutralise the NCP. Besides, it will be much easier for the BJP to beat the Shiv Sena with one of their own. This is the easily visible political optics.
But there’s much more than meets the eye. Capable and promising Marathi leaders, be it in the Congress or in the BJP, have always had their wings clipped the moment they tried to become “national”. In the Seventies it was Yashwantrao Chavan who was not only sidelined but humiliated by Indira Gandhi. Later it was Sharad Pawar with whom the Congress’s first family had uncomfortable ties which eventually forced him to quit the party. And now Fadnavis faces the same fate. If the political grapevine is to be trusted, Fadnavis is paying the price for some of his overzealous supporters’ mistake of coining a slogan ahead of the 2019 elections: “Devendra after Narendra”.
For the Marathi manoos, Delhi continues to be door (faraway), as Fadnavis would have realised by now.
The writer is editor, Loksatta