Shinde-Fadnavis bromance status could be ‘complicated’
In 2014, when the Shiv Sena joined the government, Shinde was one of five Sena ministers in Fadnavis’s cabinet as minister for public undertakings
Maharashtra’s newly-minted chief minister has his first task cut out for him: how to be on an even keel with his once all-powerful deputy. Eknath Shinde, 58 and Devendra Fadnavis, six years his junior, were colleagues in the state cabinet for five years but this was when Fadnavis was at the helm of the state government.
While the Shinde faction owes power to the BJP no doubt, Thursday’s curious chain of events with Fadnavis, who was widely believed to be the next chief minister, first announcing that he would stay out of the Shinde-led government and then later being forced to become a part of it, leads to questions about the chain of command. By ensuring Fadnavis joins the government as Shinde’s deputy, there will be checks and balances not just for Shinde but for Fadnavis too.
In 2014, when the Shiv Sena joined the government, Shinde was one of five Sena ministers in Fadnavis’s cabinet as minister for public works (public undertakings). Though Shinde was the minister for the department, Fadnavis was seen as the man driving that ministry—the biggest project that the Maharashtra State Roads Development Corporation Limited (MSRDC), which came under Shinde’s ambit, was executing was Fadnavis’s pet project—the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi expressway.
A senior Shiv Sena leader disclosed that in those early days, Shinde and Fadnavis were not on the best of terms. Their political rivalry come to a head during the Kalyan Dombivali Municipal Corporation (KDMC) elections in 2015 which the Sena and the BJP had contested separately. This battle between the two parties was so bitter in that election that Shinde publicly offered to resign as minister while at a rally addressed by Uddhav Thackeray.
While Shinde belongs to the dominant Maratha caste and hails from western Maharashtra, the Maratha heartland, Fadnavis is a Brahmin.
“However, they mended bridges when it came to the planning and execution of the ( ₹55,000 crore) Samruddhi expressway project,” the Sena leader noted. The greenfield project which includes a 701-km access-controlled road that will link the state’s capital to the winter capital, had initially been opposed by the Shiv Sena via a Saamana editorial in May 2017. The editorial claimed that government machinery was being misused to acquire farm land for the project. Later Shinde claimed that the party leadership was not against the project per se but was only trying to protect the interests of the farmers. Eventually, the Shiv Sena came around and the road was renamed as the ‘Hinduhriday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray Samruddhi Expressway’ in memory of the late Shiv Sena supremo.
A senior bureaucrat who was in the government at that time said that when it came to the MSRDC, Fadnavis and Shinde shared a good equation eventually. But, he pointed out, there was a stark contrast between the their style of working —while Fadnavis was seen as quick and decisive, always thinking on his feet, Shinde was comparatively cautious. Sainiks often use the Marathi word ‘maval’ or mild to describe Shinde’s style of operation while Fadnavis is all fire and brimstone. When it comes to optics too Fadnavis is expressive, has great social skills, while Shinde is much more muted..
But over the years the two colleagues became ‘cautiously friendly.’ In 2017, when the Shiv Sena and the BJP contested the Mumbai and Thane civic polls on their own strength, the BJP is said to have pulled its punches in Thane which is Shinde’s pocket borough. Likewise, Fadnavis confidante and Dombivali MLA Ravindra Chavan, whose constituency is part of the Kalyan Lok Sabha seat, represented by Shinde’s son Dr Shrikant, was among those hand-picked by the BJP central leadership to arrange the logistics for the operation to topple the MVA government.
However, will the two men’s power-sharing pact play out as expected?
While there have been instances in the past when chief ministers have gone on to play junior roles in subsequent governments, notably Shankarrao Chavan, Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar, Narayan Rane and Ashok Chavan, Fadnavis’s determined ambition is something that will bear watching out says the Sena leader who has worked with both men. After being kept out of power by Uddhav Thackeray in 2019, Fadnavis, known for his famous ‘mee punha yein’ (I will return) catchline, was said to be more than eager to occupy that office on the sixth floor of Mantralaya, the state administrative headquarters. It was during his tenure as the chief minister that Fadnavis is said to have gradually worked on sidelining his rivals within the party like Eknath Khadse and Vinod Tawade. So, will he quietly settle down to playing second fiddle to Shinde? The potential flashpoint can come from the control of the state bureaucracy that Fadnavis excels at, and then over the forthcoming BMC elections.
“Shinde may be seen as a BJP puppet, but the chief minister is the chief minister. It is his signature that matters, regardless of who is the power behind his throne,” said the Shiv Sena leader quoted earlier. As recent moves have shown, the soft-spoken, unassuming Shinde too is a man driven by ambition and an agenda of his own, having split the Shiv Sena vertically in pursuit of his desire. The fate of this regime may hinge on how this battle of egos and personal ambitions plays out.