Maharashtra 2019: Time Has Almost Run Out For Opposition To Counter Brand Fadnavis 

by Aashish Chandorkar - Sep 22, 2019 05:44 AM +05:30 IST
Maharashtra 2019: Time Has Almost Run Out For Opposition To  Counter Brand Fadnavis Devendra Fadnavis/Facebook 
Snapshot
  • Three reasons why Devendra Fadnavis looks set to return as Maharashtra chief minister.

The dates for the Maharashtra assembly elections have been announced.

With the election barely a month away, opinion polls also made a comeback on national television. The first big Maharashtra opinion poll was aired on ABP News on Saturday evening. This poll, conducted by CVoter, predicts the return of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government in the state.

Under the leadership of Chief Minister (CM) Devendra Fadnavis, the BJP has gone from being a bit player content to stay second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in 2013, to the single pole of Maharashtra politics.

Mumbai is where the current BJP was born.

In 1980, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, made a bold prediction at the party’s inaugural conclave. From the shorelines of Mumbai, Vajpayee was addressing a new political set-up formed from the churn of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. His audience was a dejected lot, having been handed a resounding defeat by the Congress, led by a resurgent Indira Gandhi.

Vajpayee thundered – Andhera Chhatega, Suraj Niklega, Kamal Khilega – the darkness will clear, the sun will rise, the lotus will bloom.

While the lotus started blooming in most of the country in the decade that followed, Maharashtra was an exception.

In Maharashtra the lotus wilted for many years in the shadow of the thundering Shiv Sena tiger. In 1995, in one of his earliest interviews after taking over as the Chief Minister of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, Manohar Joshi was asked how the relationship between the two parties will work. “Younger brother and elder brother; in Maharashtra, the Sena is the elder brother”, he remarked.

That position did not change much until 2013. The BJP had a national footprint, but the Shiv Sena called the shots in Maharashtra.

What the party could not achieve in decades of its existence in Maharashtra, has been achieved by the triumvirate of Modi, Shah and Fadnavis.

Prime Minister (PM) Modi’s positioning as a determined, strong and dedicated leader at the helm of the affairs creates a big pull as well as a moat for the BJP against its competition.

Home Minister and BJP national president Amit Shah has created a massively efficient and committed organisation structure for the party, focusing on every last detail of expansion across India.

CM Fadnavis has created an enviable state level brand towering over all his local competitors.

This combination seems to be driving the mood of the voters in the state. The ABP New s– CVoter survey predicts 144 seats to the BJP if it contests without an alliance with the Shiva Sena and 205 seats for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

While the accuracy of opinion polls has not been the best in recent Indian electoral history, what cannot be denied even by the staunchest BJP critics is that the BJP under Devendra Fadnavis starts as clear favourite to win the election.

What endears Fadnavis to the voters?

A lot has been said about his development work focusing on big projects on transportation, agriculture and industrialisation. However, what’s not often appreciated is that Fadnavis has also built a strong personal recall in the minds of voters given his relatable upbringing, career graph rise and urban sensibilities.

There are three key factors which outline Fadnavis’ popularity in the state.

Firstly, Fadnavis is a rare urban politician in Maharashtra. The politics of one of the most urbanised states in India is surprisingly rural. The real political power in Maharashtra has always been derived from the control of the cooperative bodies, especially agricultural cooperatives. While the Maharashtra BJP leaders have traditionally had very little rural influence, Fadnavis is a rare politician to actually overcome that barrier and rise to the very top.

Karad, Saoli, Chiplun, Pusad, Bhokar, Baramati, Shrivardhan, Nehrunagar, Nilanga, Dadar, Malvan, and Latur – these were the constituencies which the past CMs of Maharashtra represented.

CMs who were members of the Maharashtra Legislative Council came from Sangli and Solapur.

Barring the Nehrunagar and Dadar constituencies of Mumbai, every single CM in Maharashtra had come from semi-urban or rural areas of the state. Maharashtra has four cities in the top twenty most populated cities in the country – Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, and Thane. The first three have always been in the top twenty Indian cities since the state was formed in 1960. Yet, the politicians who governed the state were almost always from the hinterland.

When Devendra Fadnavis was crowned the CM in 2014, he became only the third of the eighteen Chief Ministers to represent a big-city constituency – Nagpur South West.

His urban background has helped him in talking the language of the vocal voters of a heavily-urbanised Maharashtra. He has stuck to the language of hope and optimism, of economic well being and personal and professional betterment via a facilitating rather than interventionist state. His opponents are finding it tough to counter this natural affinity with a large section of voters.

Secondly, his middle class background along with polished articulation of the governance challenges and a clean personal image are his best assets. An eloquent and communicative politician with a person-next-door character is something voters have identified with.

He can speak in all three key languages – Marathi, English and Hindi – very fluently. This is a massive advantage in Indian politics, where often regional leaders tend to run down Hindi or usually ignore it, despite its general electoral utility in many states.

Fadnavis comes across as a committed and approachable politician representing a typical BJP leadership template – a young, promising individual demonstrating merit, getting the chance to climb the ladder to the top.

Thirdly, his political discipline and the ability to stick to a singular, own agenda has been unmatched. Fadnavis has achieved a rare feat in Indian politics when it comes to avoiding controversies. In his five years, he hasn’t made a single gaffe in his speeches or statements, which the opposition can pounce upon.

Most politicians tend to be in love with the cameras, often saying things which land them in trouble later. But not Fadnavis. He has been very measured and restrained in every word he has spoken as CM. This restraint has kept his government totally free of media-hyped controversies, in turn creating and later amplifying his no-nonsense administrator image.

This is again a big advantage in a state where for almost fifteen years before Fadnavis, politics and controversies were effective synonyms.

Just like PM Modi has leveraged his brand in itself as an entry barrier to countering BJP nationally, Fadnavis has created that view in Maharashtra. The opposition has to attack him to make a counterpoint to BJP policies, but there really isn’t much to attack him with.

This personal image shielding government actions and policies is a unique problem which a Congress-led opposition has thus far failed to deal with.

Positive news itself creates its own virtuous cycle in politics. Fadnavis has imbibed this idea and used it to his fullest advantage thus far.

Time is running out for the opposition in Maharashtra to build an anti-BJP and anti-Fadnavis narrative.

Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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