One of the first press conferences I covered as a rookie reporter was of Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan in the late 1980s announcing their decision to contest elections together. Almost three decades later, as I watched the Maharashtra civic poll results unfold, I wondered how the duo who are no longer with us would have viewed the fierce election battle being fought between the friends turned foes and the final outcome. When the saffron alliance was forged in the 80s, the rules of engagement were clear: the Shiv Sena was the 'senior' partner and Bal Thackeray the self anointed Hindu Hriday Samrat. All that has now changed: the BJP now sees itself as party number one within the partnership and the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo aren't going to cede space to an Udhav Thackeray. Which is why the pre election vitriol between the allies wasn't just shadow boxing but a real fight for supremacy. Which is also why the emergence of Devendra Fadnavis as Maharashtra's neta number one is not without significance: for the first time, the BJP has found a leader who they believe can lead Maharashtra into the future with or without the Shiv Sena by its side.
I first saw Fadnavis when he was a regular guest on a Marathi news channel IBN Lokmat which was part of the IBN 18 network when I was editor in chief there a few years ago . I was impressed with his oratorical skills, his tough stand on corruption issues, and his youthful, clean cut image. When he was made chief minister in 2014, there was an element of surprise though: he was only 44 and much junior to many of his more established colleagues. He was also a Brahmin from Nagpur, and conventional political wisdom is that you can't have a Brahmin chief minister in Maratha and OBC dominated Maharashtra politics. I was even critical of his government in a column I wrote in 2015, especially it's ill thought decision on a beef ban and its seemingly clumsy handling of the drought situation in the state.
My criticism of the beef ban in particular is intact but I am willing to accept that Fadnavis is a leader of the future: he is bright, energetic, development oriented, an effective communicator, and has not faced any personal corruption charges. These are the very qualities that lifted Narendra Modi from Gujarat to the highest political executive post in the land. While Fadnavis is committed to Hindutva politics and his RSS origins are unmistakeable unlike Modi he doesn't even have the cross of communal violence to live with either. He has a more cosmopolitan appeal than a Rajnath Singh or Shivraj Chauhan, is much younger than a Sushma Swaraj, has won elections unlike a Arun Jaitley, comes from a much larger state than a Manohar Parikkar, has no legal baggage like an Amit Shah and would be more attractive to a younger demographic than a Nitin Gadkari. In a discussion on television, I even suggested that a future BJP slogan might well be : 'Today Narendra, tomorrow Devendra!" Think about it: a high caste Brahmin from Nagpur who is close to the RSS, isn't that what the sangh leadership would ideally like to see one day in the future?
When I asked Fadnavis about his national ambitions, he played it down, preferring to give credit to Mr Modi for the BJP's impressive performance in the state. But the fact is, the civic elections were fought under his leadership and it was Fadnavis who was the face of the BJP campaign. He is now certain to lead the BJP in the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections, the same year that Mr Modi will seek a second term at the Centre. Those elections are still two years away and that can be a very long time in politics. But here is my prediction: if ever the sangh parivar was to be asked the question, after Modi who, the answer may well have been found in Maharashtra this week.
Post-script: Many years ago, at a dinner I recall Mr Mahajan telling me that one day, the BJP would capture the Shiv Sena's Marathi manoos and Hindutva space once Bal Thackeray departs from the scene. Well, the tiger's roar hasn't been entirely silenced (at least in Mumbai) but it's the sharp decline of the Congress which has created a large vacuum which has been slowly filled now by the BJP. The era of the Pawars, Chavans and Patils who once dominated Maharashtra politics maybe coming to an end. Who would have imagined that they would be replaced by someone who shares a surname with the original political master strategist of Maharashtra, Nana Fadnavis! As the lotus blooms in the state, a new political order is taking shape.