As his rivals made a public spectacle of their ambitions, he said little beyond, “The party will decide.” The 44 year-old former mayor from Nagpur, home to the RSS headquarters, knows that tact and self control go a long way in politics.
The rise of the four-term MLA from Nagpur has been nothing short of dramatic. The Law graduate, who worked closely with the party’s youth wing, became a corporator in 1992. Within five years, at the age of just 27, he became the youngest mayor of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. It is no mean feat given Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s territorial control of the BJP in this region. It was followed by an unbroken stint as a legislator, and now, the state’s top job.
The Deshastha Brahmin’s RSS pedigree may have worked in his favour when it came to his party’s choice as the BJP’s first Chief Minister for Maharashtra. His father Gangadharrao Gadgil was a senior Jan Sangh leader and later a BJP MLC. His aunt Shobhatai Fadnavis was a Cabinet Minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government. Mr. Fadnavis himself cut his political teeth in the BJP’s youth wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidharthi Parishad (ABVP).
“Devendra’s father was his political Guru. He wanted to enter politics from a very young age. He was just six when his father was arrested during the Emergency. That made a huge impact on him,” says his aunt Shobhatai Fadnavis.
However, Mr. Fadnavis did not fall back on his roots but soon distinguished himself as an aggressive legislator. Armed with documents, he took the lead in targeting the Congress-NCP government on a host of issues including the Adarsh and irrigation scams. “He is able to grasp complex issues and he is uncompromising when he takes them up. But he doesn’t rub people the wrong way and make it personal,” says senior journalist Kumud Chaware.
His dexterity in negotiating the party’s power-games has held Mr. Fadnavis in good stead. As pressure from the Gadkari camp grew, he allied himself with the Union Minister’s rival, the late Gopinath Munde. It was the latter’s support which catapulted Mr. Fadnavis to the post of the State BJP President, edging out Gadkari loyalist Sudhir Mungantiwar. “But finally Mr’. Fadnavis belongs to no camp,” points out Ms. Chaware.
His clean image and simple lifestyle have endeared him to the party leadership. “He has retained the values of his RSS background. He used to cycle to school. His first vehicle was a second-hand Bullet. When in Mumbai, he still lives in the MLA hostel,” says journalist Yadunath Joshi, who went to college with him. He lives in a modest flat in Nagpur with his wife Amruta who works at Axis Bank and young daughter Divija.
A self-confessed foodie, Mr. Fadnavis faced a major weight problem a few years back. But he managed to get his weight under control and even modelled for a clothes brand. “He did a brief stint of modelling for a friend,” says Mr Joshi. A regular on Twitter and Facebook, Mr. Fadnavis fits into the party’s outreach to the youth.
However, what stands in Mr. Fadnavis way is the obvious lack of experience. His political life has been restricted to Vidarbha and he lacks pan-Maharashtra exposure. His strong support for separate statehood for Vidarbha makes him vulnerable if the demand were to gain momemtum.
Although he has been a mayor, he has little experience in running a government. Handling independents and future allies also requires seasoned negotiating skills. But Mr Fadnavis’s immediate challenge will be win his rivals-CM hopefuls within the BJP.