Maharashtra CM gears up for game of throne season 2 | mumbai news | Hindustan Times
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Maharashtra CM gears up for game of throne season 2

Facing Maratha and Dalit polarisation, farmer discontent, Opposition, and ally-turned-critic, 2018 will be a tough year for the CM

mumbai Updated: Apr 09, 2018 11:47 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
CM Devendra Fadnavis
CM Devendra Fadnavis

One of the first things Devendra Fadnavis did after he took over as the chief minister of Maharashtra was to form his own team and set up a Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) along the lines of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – one that would call the shots in the state’s administration and “assist” other ministers whenever they felt challenged.

In the past three-and-a-half years, barring the recent plastic ban policy (where the chief minister has been forced to step in), majority of the important policies and projects of the government have had a distinct CMO imprint.

What is also now clear to those who track political developments is that in administration as well as in organisational politics, 48-year-old Fadnavis has shaped himself in the mould of his boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He is in charge and has a clear mandate from the top. But, this also means a year down the line when the state goes to polls, Fadnavis will be solely accountable for his party’s performance. How the CM steers his government and administration will be crucial.

2018 is not going to be an easy year for Fadnavis.

Maratha and Dalit polarisation and protests, deepening farmers’ discontent despite the loan waiver, political realignment of the Opposition parties, a bitter ally and the high expectations from the people are some of the challenges going ahead.

And given that he hasn’t been able to build his own core team within the BJP – of either ministers or party colleagues – Fadnavis will have to tackle most of these challenges alone.

This will have to be done even as he pushes the state administration to complete some of the showcase infrastructure projects, to shore up support from the BJP support base.

Discontent on ground

While BJP emerged victorious in the municipal and district body polls across the state’s big metros, towns, districts and villages despite demonetisation, the past two years’ discontent against the government has also been visible in certain sections.

The Maratha silent protests, the farmers’ agitation and now the Dalit protests signify an unrest that could pull the BJP down.

Fadnavis has managed to handle these agitations with some nifty negotiations, but none of these issues stand resolved. All these protests are likely to flare up ahead of the 2019 elections.

The BJP will have to do a tightrope walk between the Marathas and Dalits – on the opposing sides of the caste divide – to keep both the constituencies that represent 32 per cent and 13 per cent of the population, respectively, happy.

After the Bhima-Koregaon violence and given how national events have unfolded – from Rohit Vemula’s suicide to Una floggings – Dalits, who had voted for BJP in 2014, are now disenchanted.

While Marathas expect a decisive move on reservation for the community before election, the Dalits will also need concrete assurances over non-dilution of the Atrocity Act, action against accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case (beyond symbolism) and Ambedkar monuments.

“There is discontent on the ground and while things are still fluid, it is clear that BJP has a fight ahead to win over its voters. Dalits and Muslims are likely to vote strategically in the coming polls and it is unlikely that they will in BJP’s favour. While Marathas have also voted for the BJP and Shiv Sena since 2004, and definitely in 2014, this time given the unrest, they may opt to side completely with Sharad Pawar rather than a Brahmin chief minister,” said political analyst Surendra Jondhale. “The caste dynamics is a reality in Maharashtra and it will be all the more evident in 2019.”

For now, BJP can hope for votes from only its middle-class urban voter base, which may continue to support the party in the absence of any other credible alternative.

A lot of this, political observers said, will depend on how things unfold with the Karnataka elections in May.

The farmers’ protests pose a bigger challenge. It is also the only issue where the Opposition scored and the chief minister was forced to give in to the demand of a loan waiver against his wishes and ahead of time. “We have been caught in a Catch-22 situation with the farmers’ protests. The CM was forced to take the decision and now despite the waiver, farmers don’t seem to be content. Loan waiver announcement should have been done a little before the polls, but we got tripped due to Uttar Pradesh government’s poll promise and Opposition pressure,” said a senior BJP leader.

Despite the waiver of Rs34,000 crore (only Rs13,589 crore has been spent so far), farmer leaders, pointing to its limited benefits, are demanding a full and unconditional waiver. That is as unsustainable a demand as reservation for Marathas.

Farmers across the state stand dejected today. This rural discontent can cost the party, unless it is reigned in through an effective farm price mechanism and increased minimum support prices. Both Congress and NCP – known for their rural base and network – have an opportunity to score here and they know that well.

United opposition and an unhappy ally

Even in 2014, as BJP romped home victorious on the Modi wave, winning 122 seats, the Congress and NCP tally stood at 86. They had contested polls separately. If they had contested together, political analysts say their tally could have reached a 100 in 2014

“The Congress and NCP will contest the 2019 polls together. They have realised that if they have to counter us, they have to come together. There may even be a broader alliance with Prakash Ambedkar and a tacit understanding with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS),” said a BJP minister.

While Fadnavis had always maintained that BJP and Sena will contest polls together, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray announced this year that his party will go solo henceforth.

“It will be difficult for Thackeray to do a U-turn now, and with Congress and NCP contesting polls together, 2019 polls will not be easy for the BJP,” said Prakash Bal, political analyst.

Getting his sulking ally on board will be one of the big challenges for Fadnavis in 2018-19 as there will be several elements, including within the BJP, who will try to trip this effort.

The CM also faces simmering discontent within the party. “There is a sense that even though BJP is in power for four years, there has been no real benefit to the party workers. Then there are senior leaders like Eknath Khadse, who are disgruntled at being left out of power. Even senior ministers feel that they are sidelined, as Fadnavis often does not take them into confidence and relies on a team of outside experts and officials. Ministers now often don’t contribute unless asked to,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be named.

None of Fadnavis’ senior cabinet colleagues like education minister Vinod Tawde, rural development minister Pankaja Munde, finance and forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, revenue minister Chandrakant Patil and co-operation minister Subhash Deshmukh are considered to be close to him. The state party president Raosaheb Danve also stands largely side lined. This was evident during the recent long march by farmers where Fadnavis was left alone to tackle the crisis.

While he deputed his close aide in the cabinet, medical education minister Girish Mahajan, to talk and march with the protest leaders, senior ministers, including Pandurang Fundkar (agriculture), Chandrakant Patil (revenue), Sudhir Mungantiwar (forests), all dealing with the subject on hand were missing and some had to be called at the last minute to form a committee to talk to the agitators.

Brand Fadnavis

What works for the BJP-led government is that the CM continues to have a clean image and an appeal as a modern political leader with a vision for the state.

This is also because the Congress and NCP’s senior leadership is still to get out of the corruption taint and win back credibility.

By getting long pending infrastructure projects, including the metro off the board, Fadnavis has proved his efficiency in contrast to the earlier regime. As a home minister, too, Fadnavis has had a far better track record than his predecessors in managing law-and-order and curbing lucrative police transfers. In tackling the protesters, he has shown his government to be responsive. But, whether this can be enough given the overall administrative deficit of his inexperienced ministers and varied corruption allegations is not known. The BJP government lost one of its senior-most ministers, Eknath Khadse, to a graft scam. Other ministers, including housing minister Prakash Mehta, labour minister Sambhaji Patil Nilangekar, industries minister Subhash Desai (Sena), tourism minister Jayprakash Rawal, are facing allegations. By opening doors to all politicians of all hues to expand its base, Fadnavis has taken in several tainted leaders in the party.

“The BJP has long lost moral high ground and they cannot go to people on the plank of anti-corruption given the blanket clean chits the CM has given to all scams. I think the Fadnavis government has not been able to get a grip on the administration and bureaucracy and this is evident from the mess in the Mumbai University to farmers’ discontent and unemployment,” said Bal.

“Our election will be fought on Brand Modi and Brand Fadnavis. The Opposition has a leadership and organisational crisis and even if they come together, we can tackle it. The Sena will have to contest as an ally if it wants to survive,” said a BJP minister.