Devendra Fadnavis: Party or Broker? Decoding Maha CM’s move in ADHM ‘deal’

Social media, newspaper op-eds and TV debates are abuzz with the ‘intervention’ of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in resolving the dispute between Karan Johar and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in relation to the release of the move Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM).

MNS had threatened the owners of multiplexes that if they exhibited ADHM, they may face disruption and forcible blocking of the movie because it has Pakistani actors. Other than MNS, some single screen owners themselves had decided to boycott the release in wake of anti-Pakistan feelings running high in the country after Uri attack.

With the opposition growing, Bollywood talking heads quickly conflated boycott with ban, misrepresenting the boycott as government intervention, and immediately took the battle to the only destination they recognize lately – PM Modi’s doorstep.

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The matter went through familiar twists and turns adequately documented in “The Intolerance Playbook in Modi’s India” which was written before the Bihar election in November 2015. Given that Maharashtra was at the frontline of this controversy, CM Fadnavis had to act in some way to bring the issue to a logical closure. Last week, Fadnavis met the MNS chief Raj Thackrey and Karan Johar to put an end to this controversy.

After this meeting, MNS ‘cleared’ the movie release with three key demands accepted by Johar – no future association of Pakistani artists, a tribute to the soldiers before the movie plays, and a donation of Rupees 5 crore towards Army welfare by every producer who has cast Pakistani artists in any movie yet to be released.

The Maharashtra CM came in for heavy criticism for “brokering” such a settlement, though he claims he had opposed the MNS demand of donation of 5 cr, which was quickly agreed upon by the producers.

His intervention has been dubbed as a poor precedent, breakdown of good governance, and a blot on the position of a Chief Minister.

While all this is debated and more, the most important reason for Fadnavis’ intervention is being missed out on. His actions – whether or not befitting a Chief Minister – were completely political, and he has managed to strengthen his party ship in a big way after this ‘settlement’.

How? The answer lies in the Maharashtra state assembly election of 2014. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has about 42% of the seats in the assembly. It is supported by Shiv Sena (SS), which is still smarting from the loss of designation as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Maharashtra. The other option for the BJP is to take outside support from Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to keep the government stable. But BJP, and specifically Fadnavis, vociferously campaigned against NCP in 2014 on the way to power. So that’s an avoidable option. Therefore BJP would like to keep SS, but also have the upper hand.

BJP however cannot have the administrative upper hand, because it does not control any large municipal body in Maharashtra outside Nagpur. All these corporations are with SS, NCP, and Congress or in one case, MNS.

Retaining these municipal bodies is critical for each of those four parties – after all politics needs money and money is derived from power. All the moves with respect to AHDM were actually staged by every party not so much in an ideological way, but to position themselves ahead of the local body elections.

The new round of local body elections start November end and will culminate with the larger corporations Mumbai (BMC), Thane (TMC), Pune (PMC) and Pimpri-Chinchwad (PCMC) going to polls in February.

Ideally, Fadnavis would want to control BMC with the support of SS and PMC independently. He would also want to be a clear second in TMC (likely to be retained by SS) and PCMC (likely to be retained by NCP). This game of thrones needs a certain style of voting division. That’s where MNS comes into play – its voter base has significant overlap with that of SS and in some cases the BJP itself.

Fadnavis’ intervention has given a new lease of life to MNS in Maharashtra, and it may ride the ‘victory against Johar’ wave to cut some votes in these elections specifically in Greater Mumbai and Pune Metro regions.

This political action gains more prominence because for the initial rounds of polls for smaller local bodies, SS has decided to contest independently of the BJP. This announcement was made by the SS Chief Uddhav Thackrey just a few days ago.

BJP has a reasonably strong urban vote base in Maharashtra but it is not a strong party in semi-urban and rural areas. With that handicap, it is quite likely that the party does not fare too well in these smaller local bodies, which tend to be dominated by local strongmen, often aligned with either SS or NCP.

So it became doubly critical for Fadnavis to control the 4 February elections. The only way he could convince SS to have an alliance would have been to show them that BJP had a credible alternative (an MNS alliance) or could prop up a bogey (MNS contesting all seats against SS).

The meeting with Raj Thackrey and Karan Johan achieved that amply. Irrespective of the optics of the settlement conditions, ADHM will now release sans violence. SS will have to find another way to put pressure on the BJP to let them be the senior partner in February polls. And Fadnavis will go into these negotiations from a position of strength.

Was the CM intervention bad optics? Was this bad governance? A CM exceeding his brief? Debates will continue to take place and most people, including many vocal BJP supporters on the social media, believe that Fadnavis erred.

But Fadnavis appears to be betting on the fact that the voters don’t take editorial commentaries too seriously and may well see the compromise as a ‘reasonable one’. He may have lost the morality perception of social media influencers, but gained in a huge way in his political standing. In his equations with SS, it is Advantage Fadnavis for now.

Some Twitter celebrities asked if Fadnavis was the party or the broker to the MNS – Johar settlement. He was neither. Instead he made a move to be the Baazigar – kuchh haar ke jeetne wale ko… Voters will complete the dialog one way or the other in February 2017.

a Pune based IT professional with keen interest in politics

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