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Is Fadnavis Being Sidelined? Dropping His Dissenters But Picking New OBC Faces, BJP Has Everyone Guessing

File photo of BJP leader and former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis.

File photo of BJP leader and former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis.

The announcement of the state BJP’s executive committee has laid speculations about the possible sidelining of Fadnavis to rest.

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Dhaval Kulkarni

For many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Maharashtra, this question has been like the proverbial elephant in the room. After the BJP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, leading to erstwhile ally Shiv Sena forming a government with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) late last year, will the stock of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis eventually decline?

However, subsequent developments have proven this wishful thinking of leaders from the anti-Fadnavis camp to be wrong. The appointment of Fadnavis loyalist Pravin Darekar as the leader of opposition in the state legislative council, followed by leaders like Pankaja Munde, Eknath Khadse and Vinod Tawade being left out of the list of nominees to the council, indicated that Fadnavis was firmly in the saddle.

The announcement of the state BJP’s executive committee has laid speculations about the possible sidelining of Fadnavis to rest. BJP leaders admit that the dominance of Fadnavis loyalists in the organisation proves that the incumbent leader of opposition in the state legislative assembly enjoys the high-command’s trust and may make it to the top position if the BJP returns to power.

Though it was expected that Khadse, Tawade and Pankaja may be accommodated in key organizational posts, they have been given sinecures as ‘special invitees’ to the state executive. BJP sources say the party high-command seems to BE eager at wearing out Khadse, who has repeatedly threatened to walk out of the party, but held back from actually biting the bullet.

Khadse, the then leader of opposition in the state legislative assembly, was pipped to the chief minister’s post by former understudy Fadnavis in 2014. Though he was accommodated in the cabinet as the revenue minister, the powerful other backward classes (OBC) leader from North Maharashtra, made his disgruntlement and ambition obvious.

In 2016, a slew of reports about Khadse, including a controversial purchase of land reserved for the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) at prices less than the market rates, led to his ouster from the cabinet. Khadse was also denied a renomination from his Muktainagar constituency in Jalgaon, with his daughter Rohini Khadse Khewalkar, who was fielded instead, losing by a wafer-thin margin to a Shiv Sena rebel, allegedly due to internal sabotage.

Another chief ministerial aspirant, Pankaja Munde, the daughter of BJP stalwart and OBC leader, late Gopinath Munde, also faced a shock defeat at the hands of estranged cousin and incumbent NCP minister Dhananjay Munde, in what has been attributed to similar internal machinations. Two sitting ministers, Tawade and Chandrashekhar Bavankule were also denied renominations from their constituencies in Mumbai and Nagpur, respectively.

Though it was expected that some or all of these leaders were likely to be renominated for the legislative council elections, the leadership chose a fresh batch of leaders from the dominant Maratha and OBC communities.

The new state executive makes it obvious that the marginalization of the anti-Fadnavis lobby within the party, especially Khadse and Pankaja is akin to the writing on the wall.

In a surprise move, the BJP has nominated Pankaja’s younger sister and Beed MP Dr Pritam as the vice-president, while Khadse’s daughter-in-law Raksha, a second-term MP from Raver, will be a party secretary. While Pankaja and Khadse have made their resentment obvious from time-to-time, both Pritam and Raksha have been tight-lipped.

A senior BJP leader claimed while Pankaja’s name figured in the list of office bearers till the last minute, she had chosen to opt out and was replaced by her sister. On the record, BJP state unit president Chandrakantdada Patil, who despite his ambitions, shares a good working relationship with Fadnavis, claims that Pankaja will be accommodated as a national office bearer.

The BJP has instead zeroed on a fresh team, including former minister Dr Sanjay Kute, Nashik MLA Devyani Pharande, and Shrikant Bharatiya, as general secretaries. Fadnavis acolytes like Prasad Lad and Chitra Wagh, who are imports from the NCP, also figure in the list of new office-bearers.

While Kute is a Fadnavis loyalist, Bharatiya, an organization man, has worked with Fadnavis in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). He was later inducted as an officer on special duty (OSD) in the Fadnavis-run chief minister’s office (CMO) to serve as a link between the government and the party.

Bavankule, who was the energy minister in the Fadnavis cabinet, is said to balance his interests between the rival camps led by the former chief minister and Union minister Nitin Gadkari. He was dropped as a BJP candidate from his Kamthi assembly segment, which party sources admit, provoked a backlash from his Teli (oil pressers and merchants) community, which is among the powerful backward classes in Vidarbha with Kunbis (tillers) and Malis (gardeners).

Bavankule’s rehabilitation as a general secretary may also be meant for this damage control.

The leadership seems to have preferred to promote a fresh batch of OBC leaders to bolster its base within the community. Though the Shiv Sena has a bedrock of support within the other backwards, who are estimated to form around 53% of the population, its alliance with the NCP, which is seen as a Maratha-dominated party, has led to unease. The BJP may hence be fishing in troubled waters by wooing OBC groups.

However, a BJP leader denies the perception that Fadnavis, despite his dominance over the party’s affairs in Maharashtra, enjoys a carte blanche from the high-command. The leader noted that the promotion of Fadnavis, who belongs to the Brahmin community, which does not have much political clout in Maharashtra, is part of a strategy by the BJP central leadership to elevate leaders from politically insignificant and smaller social groups to leadership positions.

Fadnavis may have won this round of the battle. But the challenge lies in keeping the party together during its times in the opposition, note pessimists. Many BJP’s legislators are inductees from the Congress and NCP, and may not reconcile themselves to spending time on the opposition benches, should the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government survive for a reasonable time.

This indicates that the last word on the power struggle in the party is yet to be said.

Disclaimer:Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views expressed are personal.


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