MUMBAI : Late into Wednesday night, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis met an eclectic group of people in whom he has placed trust and whose opinions he values. They didn’t discuss the likely assembly election results due on Thursday because that, in their view, was a given. The group discussed government formation, logistics of swearing-in, allotment of portfolios, and how many departments to leave out for the Shiv Sena, its alliance partner.

By Thursday afternoon, the picture had completely changed. As the numbers of trends and wins rolled in, it was clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance would have to settle for only 161 seats (including leads)—significantly lower than the BJP’s assessment of 220, and fewer than the alliance’s score of 185 in the last election. As the day wore on, the plans for a grand celebration at the party office were recalibrated.

With this tally, the BJP-Sena combine is all set to form the next government, and there is no doubt Fadnavis will take his second oath of office as chief minister. He will make history. The last time that the two saffron parties were in power from 1995 to 1999 with Sena’s men as chief ministers, the alliance did not return to power. At the same time, Fadnavis’s approach—driven by his articulation of the principle of “saam, daam dand, bhed (to win at any cost, in any manner)"—has been found wanting.

Weaker mandate

For sure, Fadnavis won’t have the authoritative mandate that he believed he would have after this election. His ambition to dominate Maharashtra’s public discourse and shape its development in his ideology will be stymied. And the political intrigues which he played—wooing away Marathas from other parties, trying to decimate the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), constraining and diminishing the Sena—have not delivered results.

The assembly election result is below par in the BJP’s assessment, and Fadnavis will have to explain that to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. The last five years have been the best ever for the BJP in Maharashtra, but the leadership will have to reflect deeper on two issues: one that these were not Maharashtra’s best years by most socio-economic indicators, and two that ground-level issues such as drought, floods, loss of jobs cannot be ignored.

In October 2014, not many even in the BJP would have wagered that Fadnavis would come through the five years. Given that he was only 44 years old then and had not held any position other than mayor of Nagpur, he might have had moments of self-doubt too. Now, he is here to stay.

He spearheaded a stable government in a key state; held together a difficult ally like the Sena which acted less as a joint venture partner and more as an opposition party; teflon-coated himself so that allegations of corruption against his cabinet ministers did not reach his door; delivered a handsome 41 of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats to the BJP earlier this year.

“Fadnavis is nothing if not clear-headed and precise, ideologically committed, loyal to his friends, and of impeccable integrity," said his long-standing friends. He can be, by his own admission, ruthless too.

That said, Fadnavis has been more scintillating for his party than for the state. This makes his next five-year tenure a challenging one, more so than the first one.

The challenges

The challenge begins within the alliance itself. The Sena rank and file has been unhappy at the party’s diminished stature in the state. The Sena’s leaders complain in private conversations that the BJP has not only assumed the “big brother" tag between the two political parties, but it’s also intent on surveillance and eventual decimation of its junior partner. “We knew we had to be careful but there’s little we could do. This result allows us breathing space and flexing space," said a Sena member of Parliament to Mint.

Fadnavis had worked to restrict the Sena in this election. After a public promise to share seats 50:50, he and BJP state president Chandrakant Patil pushed the Sena to accept only 124 of 288 seats. The duo also denied the Sena key contests in urban areas which are considered the Sena’s strongholds.

If the Sena did not have a healthy number of legislators in the Mumbai-Thane-Pune-Nashik belt, it would reduce Uddhav Thackeray’s bargaining power, they reckoned. The BJP’s vote share was barely 10.7% in 1990 assembly election when the two parties first formed the alliance; the Sena’s was 16%. Since then the Sena’s vote share has hovered around 16 to 19%, while the BJP’s has steadily grown to around 25 to 28%.

As it turns out, the Sena has bagged 56 (including leads) seats this election. Back on the table now are the 50:50 power sharing formula, division of portfolios, and inducting Aaditya Thackeray as deputy chief minister. How Fadnavis works these out will determine much in the years to come and have a direct impact on governance.

The resurgent NCP

Fadnavis’s second major challenge will be the resurgent NCP. Remember, a large group of regional leaders and elected representatives of the NCP followed Udayanraje Bhosale to the BJP. This combined with Fadnavis’s earlier moves to divest the state’s co-operative empires from NCP and Congress politicians, and the Enforcement Directorate case against NCP chief Sharad Pawar (though his name was not in the police FIR) meant it was an all-out war.

Pawar, nearly 80 years old, took to the field, slugging it out through the campaign. His rally in Satara in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm, the rain disturbing neither him nor his audience, netted in support for the party. Fadnavis focused special attention on Baramati, the Pawar family’s home turf, but both the family candidates—Ajit Pawar and Rohit Pawar—won.

The NCP with 54 seats (including leads) now has 13 more than in its last outing. Pawar was scathing in his criticism. “People have rejected party hoppers and the 220+ balloon that had been floated. Fadnavis has been in power for five years but he failed to resolve issues of the state," he told Mint. “The agrarian crisis is worse, farmers are angry, industrial units have shut down or working one shift. It was up to him to find solutions, instead he came for his political rivals."

Then there’s the Congress, which contested this election without an overarching state leader, and a cogent narrative and resources, but managed to retain its numbers in the mid-40s. “The Fadnavis government was nothing but a blatant misuse of the state agencies. I’ve never seen this in my political life," said Ashok Chavan, former chief minister, of the state government’s move against the opposition leaders who had been threatened with probes and inquiries. “It doesn’t mean they did something wrong, but an inquiry is enough to finish off or derail their political careers."

Uneven track record

After much political intrigue, it now clearly emerges that Fadnavis is now the only pan-Maharashtra leader. His appeal is not limited by his being a Brahmin and cuts across the old BJP formula of MaDhaVa (Mali, Dhangar, Vanjara) and Bania to get a section of Marathas over to the party. To resolve the Maratha reservation issue and enlist their support called for planning and foresight on Fadnavis’s part. But implementing it presents another challenge. Now, the Dhangars are at his door reigniting their long-pending demand for reservation.

The political intrigues and battles within are but one aspect of Fadnavis era in Maharashtra. To the average Maharashtrian, this must translate into governance and resolution of issues. But on both rural and urban fronts, the state is facing many issues. “I believe that Fadnavis had no ideas of his own when he started off, so he adopted all the bad ideas and projects that the Congress-NCP combine had mooted, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea, coastal road, and Navi Mumbai airport. All these will be environmental disasters," said Debi Goenka, noted environmentalist.

Consider Fadnavis’s track record. Metro networks in cities have taken off, but are yet to be completed. Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan, his flagship project in rural areas to re-energize local water systems to combat drought has consumed nearly 8,500 crore, but the response has been unenthusiastic so far. In Mumbai, he refused to see a forest in Aarey and got bureaucrats to bulldoze their way through all opposition to the metro alignment. Fadnavis’s grand programmes such as Magnetic Maharashtra did not bring even a fraction of the investment it had promised. Foxconn was supposed to invest $5 billion over five years since 2015, but it’s been a trickle so far.

To be sure, Fadnavis has a work record over the past five years: the gradual takeover of the co-operatives network by the BJP leaders; neutralizing the angry Maratha agitation for reservation among other demands; pushing through an ordinance and then a Bill to break the Agricultural Produce Market Committee network; getting corporates to contribute in rural areas through corporate social responsibility programmes. But Fadnavis did not seek votes on these issues, which speaks for itself.

Remember, urban Maharashtra has a set of issues, from jobs and housing to healthcare and subdued business sentiment, thanks to demonetization and the goods and services tax roll-out. And of course, the agrarian crisis is worsening—Maharashtra’s agricultural growth last year was not even 1%, more than 12,800 farmers committed suicide due to high debt between 2015 and 2018.

The road ahead

In the coming years, Fadnavis will be tested on two diverse fronts: political and administrative. Fadnavis’s style of functioning is what could be called the Modi model. He brought in urgency to the work done there, chose his team of bureaucrats and largely worked through them. He micro-managed projects and progress, planned and mounted grand scale events, connected directly with people, communicated effectively, and blunted the political opposition.

To this, Fadnavis brought to bear his multidisciplinary education in law, management and engineering. Fadnavis is, one could say, more a technocrat chief minister than a purely political one. That said, he is more approachable, listens more, and is willing to change his mind—but the limitation of this model has been brought home by this election result. For him and the BJP, this has not really paid off.

When he strode in to the ballroom of a suburban five-star hotel last month for a conclave, he smiled his acknowledgment to a number of industry leaders and who’s who of Mumbai. Five years ago, after he was sworn in, at an ice-breaker meeting organized by an industry association for him and corporate leaders, Fadnavis was introduced to each corporate czar. He told them all: “I don’t know each of you personally by name yet." They came away impressed with his straight-forwardness and down-to-earth approach. Each of them is now only a call away for Fadnavis.

There’s no doubt Fadnavis’s personal-political-electoral journey has been phenomenal. But as he embarks on a historic second term, Maharashtra’s growth story cannot get back on track till he works with a consensus on issues across its rural-urban landscape.

(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist and chronicler, writes on politics, cities, gender and media.)

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