Mumbai: In an uncharacteristically aggressive speech at a party event recently, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis took the battle to the opposition camp led by Sharad Pawar, firing up party cadres ahead of next year’s elections in the state and strengthening his own position in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

At the BJP’s foundation day in Mumbai on 6 April, Fadnavis described opposition leaders as a “pack of wolves out ganging up for power grab against a lion called Narendra Modi". The speech was remarkable for its high decibel levels in the literal as well as the political sense. It eclipsed BJP president Amit Shah’s speech that followed and struck a chord with the BJP cadres.

For someone known to be soft-spoken and mild-mannered, the change is stark. To be sure, he led an aggressive BJP campaign against Shiv Sena in last year’s election for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). But even then, he never directly took on Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, and in spite of the Sena’s frequent broadsides at the Modi government, the BJP leader maintains a cordial relationship with the Sena chief.

BJP functionaries and political analysts agree this new-found aggression helps Fadnavis cement his position further as the face of the BJP campaign in 2019. However, analysts are also sceptical about Fadnavis’s ability to manage power dynamics within the BJP to become an unchallenged leader.

A BJP legislator, who is a close confidante of Fadnavis, said the chief minister had achieved many goals in his “strategically drafted and rehearsed speech". “He positioned himself as the commander of the BJP troops in Maharashtra, gave a pro-active agenda to the cadres, set at rest all the speculation about the BJP’s friendship with NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), and pumped adrenaline into the BJP cadres exactly when the opposition is trying to build a narrative of despondency and dismay. In the run-up to elections, we need cadres who are fired up and Fadnavis provided that fire," the BJP legislator said, requesting anonymity.

Another BJP functionary who is part of Amit Shah’s “per booth 25 youth" programme for the BJP cadres and who did not want to be named said the central leadership is fully aware of the importance of Maharashtra in the 2019 polls. “With 48 Lok Sabha seats, we are the largest state after Uttar Pradesh. Modiji is our star campaigner but we need state-level leaders who can pull it off on their own and add to the BJP kitty from their states. As far as the central leadership is concerned, Fadnavis is already the face of the BJP campaign and he has earned this stature," the BJP functionary said. He added that Fadnavis’s aggressive posturing had to be seen in the context of the NCP’s ongoing Halla Bol agitation in the state and NCP leader Pawar’s efforts to mobilize opposition parties against Modi and BJP.

“Not only Fadnavis, even Amitbhai specifically mentioned Pawar saheb in his speech. Since the NCP chief is playing a key role in mobilizing opposition parties, he must be taken head-on and that is what Amitbhai and Fadnavis did. Now the cadres know who the bigger enemy is," he said.

But Suhas Palshikar, senior political analyst and former head of the department of political science at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, thinks there is still some time before Fadnavis is conclusively spoken of as the face of the BJP campaign in Maharashtra.

“It is true that Fadnavis has positioned himself comfortably within the party. However, as to Fadnavis being the face of the BJP, there is some time yet. It would depend on the internal dynamics of the party pertaining to leaders like (Eknath) Khadse and Pankaja Munde on the one hand and Modi’s own popularity and the turn of events around this time next year," Palshikar told Mint.

The reference to senior BJP leader and former Maharashtra revenue minister Khadse and Fadnavis’s cabinet colleague Munde, daughter of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, is revealing. Khadse, who had to resign in 2016 in the wake of allegations of misuse of office and conflict of interest in securing a plot of land near Pune for his family, has since then been sniping regularly at Fadnavis and the BJP leadership. Munde, who enjoys a following among the Other Backward Classes (OBC), has on a few occasions pitched a role for herself as the OBC face of the party after her father.

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