Devendra Fadnavis's recent cabinet expansion showed that he could cut his intra-party rivals to size if they grew too big for his comfort
Mumbai: Twenty-one months as the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis has proved his detractors wrong on three counts. One, that he is prime minister Narendra Modi’s puppet. Two, he will always be overshadowed by the more formidable Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road transport, highways, and shipping, who himself had chief ministerial ambitions. Three, he is too nice and soft-spoken to be a competitive politician.
His recent cabinet expansion showed that he could cut his intra-party rivals to size if they grew too big for his comfort. A couple of Gadkari’s men in the cabinet have been downgraded. And though he is still Modi’s man in Maharashtra, Fadnavis has demonstrated signs that he is building his own image in the state as a politician.
Last week, when Fadnavis inducted 10 new ministers in his cabinet, he backed it up with a swift rejig of portfolios. Within hours of expansion, some senior BJP ministers found themselves divested of key portfolios that Fadnavis either gave to new ministers or entrusted other senior BJP ministers of his choice with. So, rural development minister Pankaja Munde, daughter of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, discovered in Singapore where she had gone to attend a water leaders’ conference, that she no longer held the water conservation and employment guarantee scheme (EGS) departments. An angry Munde tweeted that she won’t be attending the conclave as she was no longer the water conservation minister. A stern Fadnavis tweeted back saying she must attend as a senior representative of the state government. Munde then posted a series of placatory social media messages congratulating the new water conservation and EGS ministers and asking her supporters, who burnt Fadnavis’s effigy in her hometown Beed on Sunday, to maintain calm.
A state BJP functionary, who did not wish to be named, recalled how Gopinath Munde had once mentored Fadnavis. “But Fadnavis has shown that he is neither bound by the past nor is he indebted to his former mentor when it came to taking ruthless decisions for governance today," the BJP leader said. But though he took away the water conservation portfolio from Munde, Fadnavis made sure the decision looked like an administrative necessity according to this BJP leader. “The water conservation ministry was given to Ram Shinde who is the new agriculture minister. So, Fadnavis has managed to show the decision as an essential one to link these two important departments," he said.
Education minister Vinod Tawde, another ambitious and controversial colleague who is more loyal to Gadkari than Fadnavis, has lost his medical education portfolio to Girish Mahajan. Tawde, who has been quietly building himself as a Maratha leader, has been a cause of controversies during this government. His proximity to Gadkari was another worry for Fadnavis. Like in Munde’s case, Fadnavis has not relieved Tawde of the medical education portfolio only with an intention to downsize. A BJP legislator, who was a cabinet hopeful, said Fadnavis has used ‘controversies and allegations involving Tawde’ to take the portfolio away from him.
In June, when the BJP leadership asked senior leader Eknath Khadse to resign as agriculture and revenue minster, BJP functionaries say a “negative an internal report" Fadnavis submitted to party president Amit Shah sealed Khadse’s fate. “Fadnavis told Shah that charges against Khadse were serious and would impact the government’s anti-corruption fight against former NCP (National Congress Party) and Congress ministers if no action was taken against Khadse," said a BJP office-bearer aware of the report. Khadse, who was vocal about his chief ministerial ambitions, made things more difficult for himself by seeking to brazen out the charges. Yet, Fadnavis, who has a clean image so far, chose to crack the whip against the senior-most BJP leader in the state.
In entrusting senior BJP leader Chandrakant Patil with the revenue portfolio, Fadnavis has shown what Modi himself had demonstrated in his cabinet restructuring—that he values a silent performance away from media limelight over flashiness. The revenue minister is considered number two in state government and Chandrakant Patil, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh member from Kolhapur, has gained Fadnavis’s trust by his quiet ways. Post Khadse’s exit, finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, another Gadkari loyalist, had become a virtual number two in the cabinet. Now, Mungantiwar stands downgraded as Chandrakant Patil, also close to Amit Shah, becomes number two.
BJP functionaries admit that rubbing so many senior ministers the wrong way could come back to haunt Fadnavis if his government did not show results. “But it is a risk he has taken. As of now, the reshuffle looks like a serious exercise done with an eye on governance and future. By taking this risk, Fadnavis has demonstrated that he is not a novice in political games and he is the boss in Maharashtra," said a state BJP office-bearer on the condition of anonymity.