It was in the last session of the Maharashtra Assembly, just before the State election in 2019, that Devendra Fadnavis had declared that he would be returning as Chief Minister of the State. The phrase, in Marathi, Mee Punha Yeil (I will be back), was invoked after that as a rallying cry by Mr. Fadnavis’s supporters and in mockery by his detratcors after the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance broke up and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government was formed in 2019. On Thursday, when he prepared to anoint Eknath Shinde, the leader of the rebel Shiv Sena faction as the chief minister with the support of the BJP, a twist very few could forsee, he managed a partial payback if not a return as chief minister.
For Mr. Fadnavis, 51, the fall of the MVA government was not just a political project but more importantly a grudge match with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Since that early morning hush-hush swearing-in on November 23, 2019, when the Shiv Sena had exited the alliance with the BJP and Mr. Fadnavis had managed to rope in a substantial chunk of NCP MLAs headed by Ajit Pawar to join a government to be headed by him, to all of it coming a cropper just 80 hours later with Mr. Pawar heading back to the parent body of the NCP, Mr. Fadnavis’s image had taken quite a knocking. The two and a half years it took for him to serve payback for that public denouement has been quite a journey.
According to those close to Mr. Fadnavis, while he had always had a sound image with regard to organisation and administration, at least three instances showed that he was a quick study when it came to oppositional politics of the streets. These were — his fiery speech at at a large rally in Tardeo in 2019 in support of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, very uncharacteristic as far as his hitherto soft spoken image, his tour and organising relief work during the floods that hit the State in 2020, and the BJP managing to win the Pandharpur bypoll in 2021, a seat that the party had never managed to win so far. If this was the art of oppositional politics, the events that preceded the fall of the MVA, were the craft. It was Mr. Fadnavis’s precise calculations that led to the BJP winning the extra seats in the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Council polls, in both situations weaning away independents who had earlier supported the MVA government.
He and Union Minister Narayan Rane and senior State BJP leader Girish Mahajan also kept a keen eye on inner party rumblings within the Shiv Sena. When Mr. Shinde felt left out of the Shiv Sena power hierarchy, Mr. Fadnavis was waiting in the wings with just the right combination of tea, sympathy and a private jet.
For Mr. Fadnavis, if not the return, then the fall of the MVA government, will be sweet. The idea of supporting the Shiv Sena rebel faction is another project, to push it as the “real Sena of Balasaheb Thackeray” and not the Shiv Sena that compromised with arch rivals NCP and Congress to get the chief minister’s seat. How this plays out in terms of the future of the Shiv Sena, and Mr. Fadnavis’s own future in state politics is yet to be seen.