A day before results to Maharashtra’s civic and rural body polls were announced, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis completed 25 years in electoral politics.
Fadnavis was first elected as a corporator in the Nagpur Municipal Corporation as a 21-year-old, went on to complete two terms, then one term as the city’s youngest mayor and subsequently three terms as legislator.
Thursday’s poll results – billed as a referendum on his government’s two-and-half years in Maharashtra -- came as a big win for Fadnavis, though the verdict for Mumbai’s civic body was split.
The elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), civic bodies of nine other cities and 25 district councils governing rural areas were dubbed as Maharashtra’s mini assembly polls, a high-stakes battle for the ruling BJP and the Shiv Sena.
It is anybody’s guess who’s the winner.
In the last three decades of Mumbai politics, ever since the Shiv Sena grabbed power in the BMC as the self-proclaimed messiah of the Marathi manoos, no chief minister directly took on Bal Thackeray’s tigers and won in the bargain.
But Fadnavis, 46, did just that, something even political veterans including former Congress chief ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh and more recently Prithviraj Chavan had failed to do.
From a relative lightweight who had never worked in the government before his promotion as the chief minister after the 2014 polls, Fadnavis will now be seen as the BJP leader who managed to sideline the Congress in the city of its origin and the state which it had ruled since Independence.
Son of a BJP legislator Gangadharrao Fadnavis, rooted in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur, Fadnavis has a build a reputation of a clean, studied, educated and aggressive corporator and legislator.
Known for his knack of uncovering scams -- he put the now-famous CAG report on an irrigation scam in Maharashtra in public domain -- and analysing state budgets and public policy, he is now also seen as an astute electoral and political organiser.
In an aggressive political campaign in Mumbai, which he helmed single-handedly and micromanaged, Fadnavis not only took on the Thackerays and called the Sena a “party of extortionists” but also put up a score to match that of the “sons of the soil” party. This is the closest any party has come to Sena’s tally in the BMC since 1997.
“Despite having no government experience when he took over as the chief minister, Fadnavis has proved he has electoral and organisational acumen. More importantly, because of his clean image and vision for development, he was projected as the party’s face,” said a senior party leader.
“In these polls, he and the party also poured in resources with even ward level surveys being done to select candidates in Mumbai.”
It is another matter that the opposition is now alleging massive use of money in the elections. The other allegation is that BJP poached on “winnable candidates” wherever the party had no presence or little scope of winning, even ignoring criminal antecedents of these borrowed candidates.
This is what Fadnavis did ahead of the polls: as the face of the party, he addressed 62 rallies in the state including 11 in Mumbai in the last 15 days of campaigning. The party poached on winnable candidates, conducted in-depth surveys to gauge the mood of the people, poured money in its ad and social media campaigns and, at Fadnavis’ insistence, made fight against corruption an important poll plank along with development. He also cleared every candidate the party had put up in these polls.
Not just Mumbai, under Fadnavis’ leadership, the BJP has managed to consolidate its wins in the 2014 assembly polls by spreading its foot print across all recently-held polls starting with municipal councils and now followed with big city corporations and the district councils.
In absolute numbers, the BJP upped its overall seat tally in the ten civic corporations from 205 to 629, in twenty five district councils from 165 to 400. The BJP now controls 8 of the state’s biggest cities, effectively more than 75 per cent of its urban mandate.
With the BJP in the midst of difficult assembly battles in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa, the victory in Maharashtra will help Fadnavis bolster his position in the party -- his position as the state’s supreme leader is now cemented.
The win will also help him gain more confidence of the BJP’s top brass. It is clear that unless there is an unexpected disruption, Fadnavis will lead his party and call the shots in the 2019 assembly polls as well.
And the victory is also likely to rein in Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray who is now unlikely to threaten a pull-out from the government in the face of such a mandate favouring the BJP.
Also, it will also keep opponents opponents and ally-turned-rival Sena from constantly criticising the government and claiming that the BJP has lost confidence of the people.
“You can take it in writing that there is no danger to my government. I will stay for five years,” Fadnavis had told HT in an interview during the campaign.
And, off the cuff, he had also predicted his party’s results and the numbers in the Mumbai civic polls. It would now seem that this self assuredness comes from some astute political arithmetic.
The big challenge for Fadnavis will now be to deliver on the high expectations of the people who reposed faith in him.