MUMBAI : It was the first major political crisis Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis faced and found a way out of with the ouster of Eknath Khadse from his cabinet. The question being asked now is: Will this mean the start of trouble for him or he has come out a stronger leader?
In the state’s corridors of power, it was well-known that Fadnavis did not get along well with Khadse, who was regarded as his number two. Being the opposition leader in the assembly for five years before the 2014 assembly elections, Khadse was a natural contender for the post of chief minister when the party wrested power from the CongressNCP. When PM Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah picked Fadnavis—seen as a lightweight politician—for the top job, Khadse made his unhappiness known. To pacify him, he was given charge of the revenue department along with eight other departments. Still, within the government, the tussle between the two was quite visible.
When Gajanan Patil, a BJP worker from Jalgaon and Khadse’s alleged aide was caught by the Anti-Corruption Bureau on May 13 while demanding a bribe for a land allotment by the revenue department, many an eyebrow were raised in the party. Fadnavis (who heads the home department) told reporters that he knew Patil was under watch since the past three months. Soon, one after the other, allegations started tumbling out and Khadse found himself in a situation from where was difficult for him to extricate himself.
Sources close to Fadnavis say he made it clear in his report to Shah that the allegations related to the Pune land allotment could be embarrassing to the party and his government as it was a case of conflict of interest.
Fadnavis left the decision to the Central leadership of the party who asked Khadse to quit.
Following the episode, can the CM run the government smoothly or there is trouble in store? Will he have to battle the allegation of being anti-Other Backward Classes (OBC), a class that Khadse belongs to?
There was skepticism even in the BJP when Fadnavis, a Bramhin, was appointed as the chief minister of a state that is traditionally ruled by Maratha politicians. Eighteen months later, the consensus is that he is managing better than expected.
“So far, he has handled the political management well ensuring that he is not labeled ‘anti-Maratha’ or ‘upper caste elite politician’. This is the first time there will be allegations of him being anti-OBC. He will now have to promote other OBC leaders such as Pankaja Munde and Sudhir Mungantiwar to show that he is not against the community,” said a top BJP leader who did not wish to be named.
“A lot depends on how Khadse plays his cards and to what extent the Opposition hits Fadnavis over this issue,” he added.
On the other hand, the episode has given Fadnavis an opportunity to assert his leadership. Though there are several unhappy members within his cabinet, Fadnavis has shown them that he is the boss. “There are no murmurs of protest over the way he handled Khadse. What struck the BJP was that no other minister or prominent leader stood by Khadse as the party leadership asked him to quit. It is clear to the party that the Modi-Shah duo calls the shots and Fadnavis is trusted by them,” said a key minister.
As of now, Fadnavis is seen as a strong leader and firmly in the saddle. How the caste-politics works out will decide his hold over the government and the party in the state. However, as long as the issue of corruption is concerned, the BJP is now seen as being as vulnerable as other parties. Khadse may not be the last minister to face such allegations and this is an even bigger worry for the chief minister.