Eye on Maharashtra: No zip on his lip

Devendra Fadnavis, former chief minister and the self-confessed tallest leader of the BJP in the state, has been facing some heat for taking himself more seriously than is good for his health

(Left to Right) Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Devendra Fadnavis, NCP chief Sharad Pawar
(Left to Right) Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Devendra Fadnavis, NCP chief Sharad Pawar

Sujata Anandan

Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis never seems to know when to put a zip on his lip. He used to utter three sweet little words ad nauseum during the run-up to the state Assembly elections in 2019 that rendered him the butt of jokes when he lost office in October that year. “Mi Punha Yein”--I will return (to power) were the words that echoed throughout Maharashtra in those months and ever since wherever Fadnavis goes, people say, tongue firmly in cheek, Tè Punha Yetil (he will return)–to their event/organisation. Fadnavis is left looking sheepish at such times.

Fadnavis’ kind of self-assured arrogance has rarely been seen in political parties of any hue in the state. Even the dour and somewhat humourless Sharad Pawar was compelled to quip that ‘certainty about the uncertainty of people’s choices’ was bound to rile voters’ egos and perhaps that was one reason voters made sure Fadnavis was denied his khurchi (chair or office).

Fadnavis, having lost that khurchi of his still seems to believe he is sitting in it. He made himself the butt of jokes again this week when at a party function he blurted out how much he is lionised by his supporters, so much so that he continues to feel he is still the chief minister and never demitted office.

The reaction from Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was instantaneous. At his own party’s annual Dussehra rally, Thackeray, who never expected to be chief minister, said, “If only he had been more focused on doing work for people on the ground than building castles in the air for his return, he may actually have returned to power.”

Even Pawar, who returned to the chief minister’s office thrice after he first occupied it in 1978 and finally bowed out in 1995, (and for all his dourness) took a potshot at Fadnavis. He said, “It’s so wonderful that he continues to believe he is chief minister. Four times I was thrown out of that office for various reasons but not even once did I get the feeling that I continued to be chief minister!”

But other critics have taken Fadnavis’ assertion more seriously. “Why does he believe he continues to be the chief minister of Maharashtra?’, one of them asked. “Is it because he continues to have access to government documents through some radicalised bureaucrats, who were placed by him in key positions and have not yet been shifted out by the current regime?”

That potshot has triggered a clamour for a mass reshuffle in the police and administration. Pawar, a politician who continues in the old-fashioned mould of Nehruvian politics and believes the bureaucracy is essentially loyal to a government and not to any individual or political party, is being exhorted by his supporters to recognise that things have changed drastically. They point out how during the first Covid crisis beginning in March 2020, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government was let down by the then Municipal Commissioner who was handpicked for the job by Fadnavis and had expected to become the chief secretary. The MVA then replaced him with their own choice and the crisis was swiftly brought under control.

The MVA has also suffered over the Parambir Singh imbroglio wherein Fadnavis seemed to have information ahead of the state government over a car packed with gelatin intended to blow up important targets. Given Singh’s role in the Bhima Koregaon case, while he was the Pune police commissioner, Singh should never have been allowed to wreak havoc as Mumbai police commissioner. Things have calmed down after he was replaced and there seems much merit to the demand to conduct a massive reshuffle of the bureaucracy.

However, Fadnavis’ boast of being the tallest leader within the Maharashtra BJP also shows up his immaturity and blatant desire to be recognised as such. Over the past two years he has tried everything including misusing the office of the Governor, in cahoot with the incumbent, to oust Uddhav Thackeray from his office. Nothing has succeeded so far and despite their best efforts the BJP has so far been unable to break away a single MLA from either the Shiv Sena, the Congress or NCP despite the use of central agencies against their leaders.

Now at the Dussehra rally, Thackeray has not just ridiculed Fadnavis for being a veritable Mungerilal, but also dared both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to topple his government. “Try me and see what happens,” he said.

The Shiv Sena is rather circumspect in association with the Congress and NCP but they could fall back to their militant ways if the BJP were to provoke their leaders beyond a point. The BJP does not wish to invite any violent reaction towards themselves and allow the Shiv Sena to run away with the sympathy vote just ahead of a series of local self-government elections across zila parishads and municipal bodies in Maharashtra.

Fadnavis, the self-proclaimed tallest BJP leader of the state will thus settle for some ‘haseen sapne’ of the Mungerilal variety.

That does not say much for the future of the BJP in the second-largest state in the country!

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