3 years on, many successes for Devendra Fadnavis, but worries remain

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Mumbai: Three years ago when Devendra Fadnavis took charge as the chief minister of a minority government in Maharashtra, there were legitimate questions about the survival of this Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led dispensation. The BJP had 122 members in the 288-seat Maharashtra legislative assembly, 23 short of a simple majority.

Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) assured “an unconditional support”, apparently with the intent to bargain protection for senior NCP leaders against possible probes into alleged corruption scandals. The Shiv Sena, which fought the elections against BJP and won 63 seats, had not yet declared support. Yet, Fadnavis took oath on 31 October 2014, at a grand ceremony, which Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray attended. It took another month for the Shiv Sena to finally come on board.

Three years on, Fadnavis presides over an alliance government which is relatively more stable. Fadnavis, 47, has also earned substantial personal political capital by leading the BJP to a series of victories in local elections. But some of the initial uncertainties stay. The relationship with the Shiv Sena has grown more acidic and the two parties are now rivals for all practical purposes. While the opposition Congress and the NCP have yet to show any clear signs of revival—if anything, BJP scored a string of victories in local elections in 2016-17—Fadnavis continues to face challenges from a hostile Shiv Sena as well as over farm discontent.

Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug credits Fadnavis with getting corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds directed at some of the rural welfare schemes. “He has excessively focused on the rural parts. Getting a focused CSR help for rural projects is an achievement. There is also a lot of focus on infrastructure projects,” Mrug said. He, however, pointed out one major area of concern. “This government has not been able to raise itself above par on corruption. Especially with the talk of people like Narayan Rane (the former Congress leader who has formed a new party that has joined the BJP-led NDA) likely to become ministers, there is some resentment over this government’s approach towards corruption,” Mrug added.

A senior BJP leader and minister said the Shiv Sena remained in government because “it did not have a better option”. “But it will continue to take a critical posture on everything that this government does. The stability of the government is not in doubt for now but the relationship between BJP and Sena will get increasingly bitter,” said the minister requesting anonymity. The BJP, however, drew “much satisfaction” from the Sena’s electoral losses in virtually all local elections except Mumbai, the BJP leader said, adding that the Sena’s territorial loss to BJP even in Mumbai meant “there are no takers for Shiv Sena’s twin strategy of remaining in the government and yet continuing to criticise it on every issue”.

Fadnavis himself has expressed “concern” over the Sena’s electoral decline which some BJP insiders interpret as “a signal”.

“It was aimed at Sena legislators who are not happy with Uddhav Thackeray’s style of functioning. These legislators, who include some ministers also, have been in talks with us to explore their prospects with the BJP,” said a BJP official.

Mrug said Fadnavis has risen in three years as a “politician with a planned approach”. “He seems to have adopted this Modi way of growing through the administrative control and by positioning his politics and image as the main levers. He has made his mark as a politician,” Mrug said.

On the farm front, a bureaucrat who holds a key position in the Fadnavis administration said the BJP-led government was beset by the “systemic problems it had inherited like low irrigation coverage and exclusion of 4 to 5 million farmers from the institutional credit system as well as temporary problems like drought and outstanding debt of farmers.” The official, who did not want to be named, said the Jalyukta Shivar campaign—a collective implementation of all water conservation schemes—and the farm loan waiver announced in June had expanded irrigation coverage and brought farmers back into the institutional credit system.

“The deeper discontent over lack of proper and stable remunerative prices and access to multiple buyers through cost-effective market linkages remains unaddressed to a great extent. We have taken some measures like reforms in the Agriculture Produce Marketing (Regulation) Act to enable fruits and vegetable growers to sell outside APMC markets and plan to de-regulate food grains and oilseeds too in the future. But the larger issue of remunerative prices needs addressing by both the state and central government,” the official said.

The official said the reforms in the APMC and cooperative sector in particular had made Fadnavis politically stronger against the NCP. “It is evident from the persistent personal criticism of Fadnavis that Sharad Pawar indulges in that the former has frustrated the NCP chief,” said the official.

With two years to go for the scheduled polls in Maharashtra, Mrug sees two serious challenges for the Fadnavis government. “Caste-based politics in Maharashtra is going to test Fadnavis. I also see him being challenged from within the BJP since he does not come across as a street politician,” Mrug said.