Fadnavis’s Sharp Words, Munde’s Applause: How Reactions to Uddhav Govt’s Covid-19 Battle Exposes Internal Rift in BJP

Fadnavis’s Sharp Words, Munde’s Applause: How Reactions to Uddhav Govt’s Covid-19 Battle Exposes Internal Rift in BJP

Power is the glue that binds disparate allies and creates unlikely friends. The quest for that demanding, yet fickle mistress ensures that politicians and political parties strike expedient and often self-serving alliances to gain and hold on to positions of authority.

But, when this power turns elusive, relationships change, and old animosities get sharpened further.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra, which saw defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory, is said to be simmering with sub-terrain internal dissent against the state leadership. The party saw its former ally, the Shiv Sena, snub it to form a government under party chief Uddhav Thackeray, with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The factional feuds between the group led by former chief minister and incumbent leader of opposition, Devendra Fadnavis, and his detractors, have also manifested themselves when it comes to the BJP’s response to the Maharashtra government’s handling of the lockdown and its aftermath.

While Fadnavis has attacked the Uddhav Thackeray government for its handling of the Corona crisis and lockdown, many party leaders note that criticizing the government at this juncture serves little political utility.

Fadnavis has criticized the incumbent regime for lack of a cohesive response. He pointed to the lack of co-ordination in tracking those from Maharashtra who attended the Tablighi Jamaat convention in Delhi, and gaps in its Shiv Bhojan scheme to provide meals to the weaker sections for just Rs 5 and in distribution of public distribution system (PDS) grain.

More importantly, Fadnavis charged that the lockdown was being violated in certain ‘mohallas’ in Maharashtra. He sought that the state reserve police be deployed there and conduct daily flag marches to create “positive fear”, but claimed this was not being done due to “votebank politics”.

The leader of opposition said that the infection and mortality rates were on the higher side in Maharashtra, and the spread of the virus was alarming in cities like Mumbai and Pune, bringing them to the doorsteps of community transmission.

Fadnavis loyalist and BJP MLC Niranjan Davkhare had also pointed to Uddhav’s lack of experience, and claimed that Maharashtra would have done well to have an experienced administrator like Fadnavis during this crisis. Davkhare was attacked by the Shiv Sena and NCP for these comments. This also prompted an angry editorial in Saamana, which has Shiv Sena hawk Sanjay Raut as the executive editor, and Uddhav’s wife Rashmi as the editor.

“There is no point in criticizing the government now and trying to score political brownie points. This strategy may cause greater harm as it makes for bad optics. During a pandemic like this, we must rise above politics and make constructive suggestions to the government,” noted a senior BJP leader.

He, however, added that despite the pro-Uddhav PR spiel, the government had failed to respond to issues like ensuring social security for sections like those in the unorganized sector and supply of essentials to cities.

Though Fadnavis retains his position as the numero uno BJP leader in Maharashtra, voices of dissent have emerged against his leadership after the Shiv Sena dumped the BJP to come to power.

BJP leaders admit that during their years in power from 2014 to 2019, the party leadership had rubbed the Shiv Sena the wrong way, which led to the Sena eventually breaking off their three-decade old alliance.

A section of senior leaders, who felt cornered during the time Fadnavis was the chief minister, are said to be getting increasingly assertive every time they get an opening.

Some BJP leaders like Pankaja Munde, who are seen as being firmly in the anti-Fadnavis camp, have lauded Uddhav for his handling of matters.

Pankaja is the daughter of senior BJP leader and former Union minister, late Gopinath Munde.

“We can criticize later, we must give suggestions now,” said Pankaja, while speaking to the media. She also stressed on the need to rise about party affiliations, but also called for welfare measures to better the lot of migrant workers and the weaker sections, who are in economic distress.

Pankaja’s father, Gopinath Munde, a leader of the powerful OBC Vanjari community, is credited with taking the BJP to the masses in Maharashtra, and changing its image as the party of the upper castes like the Brahmins. He died in a road accident in Delhi, soon after being inducted as the rural development minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet in 2014.

After Fadnavis, a Brahmin, was appointed as the chief minister in 2014, Pankaja had claimed the ‘Bahujan samaj’ (non-Brahmins) wanted her to become the chief minister. Pankaja said she was the chief minister in the eyes of the masses.

Though Pankaja was the rural development minister in the Fadnavis regime, she faced a shock defeat at the hands of her estranged cousin, Dhananjay Munde of the NCP, from the family pocketborough of Parli in Beed district. Dhananjay is the social justice minister in the Thackeray cabinet and is known to be close to Fadnavis since their days in the BJP.

In December 2019, Pankaja had organized a show of strength with other disgruntled BJP leaders like former ministers Eknath Khadse and Prakash Mehta.

Khadse, a chief ministerial aspirant, had to quit as the revenue minister in 2016 after a rush of allegations against him. Though he was denied the party nomination from his Muktainagar constituency in Jalgaon, in favour of his daughter Rohini Khadse Khewalkar, she lost by a slender margin.

Loyalists of both, Khadse and Pankaja blame the rivals of their leaders for these losses. Mehta, the housing minister in the Fadnavis cabinet, was denied a renomination from Ghatkopar in Mumbai after a controversy in a slum redevelopment proposal.

However, Fadnavis’ associates said that their leader had consistently pointed out that he did not want to criticize the government. He was instead offering constructive suggestions.

An associate of Fadnavis said the campaign by some on social media seeking Fadnavis as an alternative to Uddhav, who has little administrative experience, had no official sanction of their leader or the party. He added that the BJP was firm in its resolve of standing by the state government in this hour of crisis.

“Devendraji is consistently saying that he is making requests to the state government for measures to be given to those affected by the lockdown. But, these are misinterpreted as criticism. Statements which are claimed to be his attacks on the government were made after pointed questions on these issues were asked by the media,” he noted.

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