Eye on Maharashtra: How long will Shinde play second fiddle to Fadnavis?

Maratha pride in Maharashtra is real and any slight to a Maratha by a Brahmin, perceived or real, can potentially turn ugly

Eye on Maharashtra: How long will Shinde play second fiddle to Fadnavis?

Sujata Anandan

Devendra Fadnavis must be wondering at the unfairness of it all. He had worked very hard for almost three years to topple the MVA government and yet when he succeeded, he found himself stopped at the doors to the chief minister’s office; while someone who was part of the conspiracy to deny him the job in 2019 is now, technically, his boss.

I say technically because the Constitution has no provision for a deputy chief minister. Secondly, he seems quite as discontented as ever, despite his smug assertion that theirs is indeed an ‘ED’ government. Besides the brazenness, being reduced to back seat driving cannot be palatable to him.

Eknath Shinde till now has signed on the dotted lines to revive several pet projects of the earlier government headed by Fadnavis. This includes the controversial Metro depot at Aarey, but one wonders how long the new chief minister will be content to play second fiddle to his own second fiddle.

People had a glimpse of what the future holds when Fadnavis snatched the mike away from Shinde to answer a question addressed to the CM at a press conference. Shinde looked quite out of sorts, his head swaying between Fadnavis and the reporter and he could not have been pleased with social media comments about how he had been made to look too stupid to understand or answer a plain question that needed no great thought before answering.

In the Assembly, when Fadnavis seemed all set to hog the limelight, Shinde seemed rather edged out and was overheard asking Fadnavis if he could stand and make his own address to the House. “Of course!” said Fadnavis and ceded the mike to Shinde. But I am wondering if the chief minister was actually meekly seeking permission, as most observers believe, or if he was being sarcastic. Either way, the optics in both instances didn’t bode well for the new government or their relationship.

I have seen this happen before. When Narayan Rane first became chief minister after displacing Manohar Joshi in the first Shiv Sena-BJP government in 1999, Gopinath Munde, who had been deputy to Joshi for the previous four years, thought he could teach Rane a thing or two about public conduct.

At their very first joint press conference, Munde snatched the mike from Rane on more than one occasion and answered questions on behalf of the chief minister. Rane squirmed and it came as no surprise when Munde was soon put in his place by Rane.

But then Munde was a gentleman and Rane was a goon who used the official telephones of the chief minister’s office to place calls to mafia don Chhota Rajan in front of outraged officers who could hardly stop this travesty except to refuse to listen to his orders. As a result, he made life so miserable for them that many worthy bureaucrats sought voluntary retirement to escape his shenanigans as Munde watched from the sidelines.

There was also again trouble between Ajit Pawar, who was deputy chief minister in several governments, and the then chief ministers. One chief minister who put Ajit Pawar in his place was Prithviraj Chavan who got hated so much by the former that he ended up describing Chavan as the worst chief minister Maharashtra had ever had. The bad blood between the two also eventually led to the break-up of their alliance in 2014; they came together again only in 2019 for reasons of survival.

Chavan had not had a stint in state politics when he became chief minister in 2010 while Ajit Pawar had been a much experienced veteran as deputy chief minister to Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan, all of whom treated him with kid gloves. When Prithviraj Chavan came to the CMO as a novice, Ajit Pawar thought he could teach his boss a lesson or two. He began to seek weekly report cards from even Congress ministers who bitterly complained to Chavan. They were asked to ignore the man and if he insisted, they were to tell Ajit that he was only a deputy chief minister and seeking report cards was the chief minister’s prerogative.

I do not believe Shinde will behave like Rane or Fadnavis will be as gentlemanly as Munde who, once put in his place, maintained the propriety. Nor are they akin to Prithviraj Chavan or Ajit Pawar whose ego clashes were quite civilised.

If Shinde, a Maratha, is humiliated by Fadnavis, a Brahmin, beyond reason, there is no saying how soon it could turn into a full blown caste war. The previous battle was between equals (Chavan-Pawar) and Munde as OBC was easily overcome by Rane, a Maratha.

The Maratha pride is real in Maharashtra and paranoia against Brahmins equally insidious and clashes between the two communities are both historical and legendary. But having fought hard to get a government in Maharashtra, Fadnavis is unlikely to play second fiddle to someone who has always been a follower rather than a leader throughout his political career.

The tug o’ war has only just begun-- and not just for a microphone. It will be interesting to see who gets the mike and who is left with just the stand.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 10 Jul 2022, 1:30 PM