Former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis
Former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis
File photo

Devendra Fadnavis has a famous surname. For a while, he was even compared favourably with the man who made it famous -- Nana Phadnavis, the Chanakya of the Maratha Empire. Today, however, the resonance is lost. Let alone Chanakya, the man isn't doing justice even to the post of leader of the opposition in a state where he was the CM.

Which Chanakya would stoop to soap operas starring Sushant Singh Rajput's girlfriend or Kangana Ranaut? Or bank on lapdog channels such as Republic TV? Using a pandemic to score points is no political punditry either.

Although both are Maharashtrian Brahmins, Fadnavis shares no kinship with his historical namesake; he is a 'Deshastha', a community whose roots are in central India, whereas Nana Phadnavis was a 'Chitpawan', who come from coastal Maharashtra, Velas near Shrivardhan to be precise.

To begin with, Phadnavis was not a surname. It was the office of the finance minister under the Peshwas. Derived from two Persian words, 'farad' and 'navis', it translates into English as 'maker of the lists'.

The Peshwas, Brahmins again, began as ministers but eventually took over the reins by disempowering Shivaji's successors. Nana Phadnavis, born Balaji Janardan Bhanu, was not merely the chancellor but the de facto ruler of the Maratha Empire in the late 18th century.

Under him, the Marathas held sway from the Kumaon hills in the north to Cauvery river in the South and from Gujarat to Odisha. To the British, whom he kept at bay for three decades, Nana Phadnavis was the Maratha Machiavelli.

Changed man

The only Machiavellian move by Devendra Fadnavis has been the marginalisation of his rivals, as well as potential rivals in the BJP once the Modi-Shah duo chose him as the CM in 2014, over established leaders such as Nitin Gadkari and Eknath Khadse.

Fadnavis has changed so much since then, that it is impossible to recognise him. Earlier, as an opposition leader, he charmed the media, cornering the Congress government in TV debates as well as in the assembly. Today, he is behaving like a sore loser; getting into slanging matches with second-rung Sena leader Sanjay Raut and predicting the demise of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government on a monthly basis.

He's even called for President's rule to be imposed in Maharashtra since 'dissenters' such as Arnab Goswami of Republic TV and Kangana Ranaut were sought to be silenced. The irony of 'urban Naxals', such as Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and Fr Stan Swamy, is lost on him.

This is the same man who spoke softly and spoke sense. Today, he yells at the top of his voice, replacing debate with demagoguery. As opposition leader, he went after the Adarsh and the irrigation scams but as CM, he used them as bargaining chips.

Checkmating rivals

In fact, Fadnavis reminds one of the central character in the 1985 Marathi musical Padgham; a student leader who goes from clenched fist to folded hands as he metamorphoses into a politician, making compromise after compromise to head the very system he had rebelled against.

Incidentally, Fadnavis was a student leader. He was just 21 when he was elected corporator, 27 when he became mayor of Nagpur and 44 when he became the CM.

Nana Phadnavis checkmated enemies though his legendary network of spies, Fadnavis has his friends in the media, who helped him slander party rivals; Khadse, Vinod Tawde, Pankaja Munde, all were embroiled in controversies. The first two did not even get party tickets in the 2019 polls while Pankaja, daughter of the late Gopinath Munde, lost to her cousin, Dhananjay Munde of the NCP.

The same coterie of court poets built up Fadnavis's profile. Today, it is difficult to think of a rival to him in the state BJP.

Given the Peshwa history, Fadnavis is aware that Maratha chieftains cannot digest a Brahmin CM. He rubbed it in by getting Sambhaji Raje, the 13th direct descendant of Shivaji, nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2016. Sharad Pawar retorted by harking back to the times when the Maratha Chhatrapati would appoint a Peshwa (chief minister), who in turn, would choose a Fadnavis; “I hadn't witnessed a Fadnavis appointing a Chhatrapati until now.”

Flagship project

The CM was too busy to govern; he was plotting against rivals and emulating Modi by campaigning for the party, even in municipal elections. Fadnavis's flagship project, the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, did little to tackle drought and increase groundwater level, despite the approximately Rs 10,000 cr sunk in it. The Comptroller and Auditor-General also slammed the scheme for its lack of transparency. The MVA government has since scrapped the scheme and decided to probe the irregularities in it.

At that time though, Fadnavis seemed invincible. So much so that senior Congress leaders Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Harshvardhan Patil and a host of top NCP leaders defected to the BJP, including another Shivaji descendant, Udayan Raje Bhosale.

So confident was he that Modi's charisma would sweep the BJP back to power in Maharashtra that Fadnavis roared in each of his rallies that he would return as CM; 'Me punha yein'. He even taunted Sharad Pawar, saying that the NCP lacked the stomach for a fight.

Nana Phadnavis was never so cocky. He was a team player who joined hands with 11 other chieftains to depose the unpopular Peshwa Raghunathrao in 1774. To fend off the British, he forged tactical alliances, even with the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Arcot.

This arrogance cost Fadnavis dearly in 2019 when the BJP, which was confident of improving on its 2014 assembly poll tally of 122 seats, won just 105 seats. Sharad Pawar's NCP won 54 seats, 14 seats more than the last time. The Maratha chieftain showed that he had the guts for a fight. Soon, Fadnavis was to learn that the wily Maratha had a gameplan as well. The true Phadnavis taught a lesson to the Fad-novice.

The 1979 Marathi classic, Simhasan, directed by Jabbar Patel and written by Arun Sadhu, who also penned Padgham, pales before the twists and turns in the post-poll drama in 2019. Three young journalists have written books on it; Sudhir Suryavanshi (Checkmate), Jitendra Dixit (35 Days) and Kamesh Sutar (36 Days). It will be most surely be milked by Bollywood, if permitted.

However, it is by no means the end for Devendra Fadnavis, who has time on his side. He can also take heart from the fact that his namesake survived the humiliating defeat of the Marathas at the battle of Panipat in 1761 and went on to restore the might of the Maratha Empire.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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