Immediately after Uddhav Thackeray resigned as Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis was photographed popping laddoos. Revenge is sweet. Since Mr Thackeray replaced him as Chief Minister in 2019, his rival from the BJP has worked most dependably to evict him. So last night, all smiles, surrounded by party workers, the celebration was unmuted.
It could be that the laddoos jinxed it. Because what followed today was not what Mr Fadnavis had laboured towards. Sources say at 12 pm, core leaders of the BJP met at Mr Fadnavis’s home where CT Ravi, the General Secretary of the BJP in charge of Maharashtra, conveyed that the new Chief Minister of Maharashtra would be Eknath Shinde, the Shiv Sena leader who had peeled off the majority of his party’s MLAs from Mr Thackeray, causing a full-scale crisis. Marginalised within his own party, Mr Thackeray resigned ahead of a vote on his government – one he would not survive.
The BJP’s message to Mr Fadnavis shot down his ambition to head Maharashtra for a third time. But there was more. The party wanted him to serve as Deputy Chief Minister. A steep comedown, given his earlier status and his outsized role in counselling, enabling and enforcing Mr Shinde’s revolt. It wasn’t just he who expected the top job; the media reported all morning that before the day ended, Mr Fadnavis would take oath as Chief Minister and Mr Shinde would be his Deputy.
The BJP, sources said, had a multitude of reasons for not rewarding Mr Fadnavis with what he wanted. By choosing Mr Shinde to head the government, the party can claim that Mr Thackeray’s removal has not been in utter self-interest; Mr Shinde in turn gains legitimacy as he pushes for his contingent to be recognised as the Shiv Sena; the stature of the Thackeray family as the biding and controlling force of the Sena is slashed; and the Sena cadre, who revere Mr Thackeray’s father, Bal Thackeray, may be motivated to transfer their loyalties to Mr Shinde. A formidable opponent leading the Shiv Sena could be replaced by a chief who has today publicly acknowledged his debt to the BJP.
The treatment of Mr Fadnavis also stands as proof-of-concept of an important BJP practice: putting in place leaders seen as exceeding their brief. Mr Fadnavis’ considerable public profile, his apparent assumption that the job was his, the images of the laddoo celebrations – all this may have hurt his cause.
But at 4 pm, none of this was known. So, it was an off-the-scale moment when in the middle of a press briefing at 4 pm, with Mr Shinde by his side, Mr Fadnavis announced it was the Sena rebel who would become Chief Minister. Some sentences later, he said he would not participate in the government, but would ensure its smooth operations. At a 7:30 pm ceremony, he emphasised, Mr Shinde alone would be sworn in; other ministers would be decided later.
That mic drop moment was still being absorbed when Mr Shinde and Mr Fadnavis arrived for the oath-taking ceremony. In keeping with the trend of this story, the developments were high-velocity. BJP president JP Nadda tweeted that he had personally urged Mr Fadnavis to sign up for Deputy Chief Minister; on the stage, another chair was quickly being introduced, a companion piece to the one reserved for Mr Shinde. Home Minister Amit Shah then tweeted that Mr Fadnavis had acceded to the party’s request. This was followed by Mr Fadnavis pointedly saying, also on Twitter, that he would respect the party’s orders.
Sources in the BJP say that it is incorrect to see this entirely as some sort of capping of Mr Fadnavis’s potential. His vast experience in running the state is necessary in the new government, they pointed out. He also will function as a foil to Mr Shinde, and ensure that the BJP has a firm grip on the decisions of the government.
How poorly the party’s decision sat with Mr Fadnavis is given away by the fact that he seems to have taken an executive decision, unheard of in the BJP, on his role. How swiftly he was brought back in line is typical. In a party where differences are not aired publicly, and leaders rarely dare to contradict the top bosses, Mr Fadnavis broke the code of conduct. It could be the consequences of a sweet tooth.