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Devendra Phadanvis: The Firmly Grounded Politician

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A personal and political sketch of the man who, against many odds, has become the chief minister of Maharashtra
It is the eve of the announcement of the chief minister's name and for Amruta Phadanvis, the woman who is going to be the first lady of Maharashtra, the days are rushing into each other. She is a general manager with an Axis Bank branch in Nagpur and used to juggling home, work and motherhood but this is one of those moments when hectic takes a new meaning. Right now, she is finishing up as much work as she can before boarding a plane for Mumbai.

Amruta, along with mother-in-law Sarita and other relatives, are rushing to be by her husband Devendra Phadanvis's side when he takes oath as the BJP's first chief minister in Maharashtra. The rest of the state might have been surprised by Phadanvis's sudden rise to the top but the family had faith. All of them are well educated, comfortable in both Marathi and English, steeped in middle class Brahmin culture, and untouched by the flashiness that seems to infect Maharashtra politicians once they become successful. And they want to keep it that way.

"I always knew he would be the chief minister," says Amruta over phone from Nagpur. "Devendra will remain a down to earth person. He will be unaffected by all the glamour his job as chief minister will offer. The same goes for me and other members of our family." Phadanvis's mother Sarita's voice belies her excitement but tries to mask it with a gruff, "He deserves it." Meanwhile, like all five-year-olds, Amruta's daughter Divija just wants to know whether her father will be home before she sleeps.

Most of India got their first introduction to Devendra Phadanvis when the negotiations over seat sharing was going on between BJP and the Shiv Sena. It is true that he had been the president of the BJP for some time but as a national media personality he was really an unknown. As the BJP and Sena both refused to relent on a handful of seats, television audiences suddenly noticed a chubby genial looking man with a slight moustache who seemed to make an intense effort to choose his words that were accompanied by a gesture of fingers, as if he was giving a mathematics lesson to some students.

There are certain things about Phadanvis that mark him out from the high decibel strident politics of Maharashtra. He is far removed from histrionics and a thinking politician with a law degree, a management diploma and two books on Economics. He is an anthitesis to the usual raw material of a Maharashtrian chief minister--he is not a from the state's dominant Maratha caste from which most of the chief ministers have been chosen, at 44 very young (second youngest ever, in fact; Sharad Pawar was the youngest to become the state's chief minister at 38 but that was 36 years ago), owns no educational institutes, has no intimate connections to the real estate lobby, is known to be clean without any whiff of a scandal around him.

He is also someone who worked his way from the grassroots. Shekhar Kedar, a 61-year old retired bank employee and a long time associate, has been the booth manager for Phadanvis since his first election in 1992 when he was elected as a corporator of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. He recounts Phadanvis's early political days, "He was to contest as a corporator and was 22 years old. He moved around with a group of college boys who did not know much about the manner in which an election has to be fought. Since I was his neighbour and knew about booth management, I offered to help him. We have been together since then," said Kedar. At the time he made Phadanvis run around door-to-door for voter enrolment, distribution of voter slips and aiding voters who came to the booths during election time. "Now that boy is the chief minister," he says with joy.

Phadanvis went on to win that election and become the youngest corporator in the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. His entry into politics had begun three years ago, in 1989, when he became an activist of the Bharatiya Yuva Morcha, the students' wing of the BJP. In 1997, at age 27, he was elected as the youngest mayor of Nagpur. Besides acumen, there is a reason for such political precocity and that is Phadanvis's RSS connections. His father, Gangadhar Phadanvis, an RSS functionary was an MLA from Nagpur, right in the heartland of the organisation. Shekhar Kedar says, "Devendra was a 'political child' since a young age."

In Nagpur, the area where he lived, Dharampeth, contributed to Phadnavis developing the oratory requisite for a political career. Kedar says, "Trikoni Park is an iconic ground here and is a place which has given wing to all our dreams--from enacting dramas to playing cricket. We would have local drama competitions and Devendra would act in them. At cricket matches he was the commentator. By the age of 13 he had developed good oratory skills and his commentaries were really good - it was exactly like what we used to listen to on radio."

This year Diwali at Dharampeth started on October 19, three days before the festival's date, when election results showed a stupendous victory for BJP. "There was talk that Devendra would be the chief minister. After the election results we were in no doubt," says Ashok Kedar, another neighbour who has seen Phadanvis grow up from a chubby five-year old into his middle age.

The new chief minister is known to be pleasant but forthright. Although a good orator, he is not someone who speaks without reason and his repartees are never flippant. As a legislator of the Maharashtra Assembly since 1999, he has been an active participant in all its debates and initiated many of them. If at all you want to accuse him of anything then it is that he rarely shows an emotional side in public. In post state budget debates, his suggestions are taken seriously and even Congress chief ministers have had good things to say about him. After the poll debacle when the outgoing chief minister Prithviraj Chavan was asked on his opinion on the best candidate for the post, Chavan mentioned Phadanvis and said he had all the qualities to take on the job. When Open contacted Phadanvis, he couldn't talk because the party had decided not to engage with the media while government formation negotiations were going on. "Let's wait and watch," was all Phadanvis had to offer by way of comment when asked on how he expected his life to change.

Amruta, on the other hand, feels that her husband's boundless patience will help him because he listens hard when people talk. "Often I know that the person who's talking to Devendra is only trying to butter him up by saying all sorts of good things. I feel like interrupting such people but not Devendra. He will listen to them patiently and wait until they finish. He gets very emotional with peoples' problems," said Amruta.

According to his mother, Phadanvis matured much earlier than his age. He was 16 when his father, Gangadhar, passed away and after that suddenly became an adult. His father was his guiding force, someone he looked up to and emulated. Amruta, whom he married eight years ago in an arranged match, is his closest confidante and he always stays connected to her via SMS. "He is the kind of husband that you dream about," she says with a laugh, "but we do not find much time for privacy."

After his father's death, Phadanvis struggled to find his feet in politics. Gangadhar, an MLA, was closely connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the previous avatar of the present-day Bharatiya Janata Party) and Devendra followed in his footsteps. But once Gangadhar passed away, Phadanvis found many of father's associates giving him the cold shoulder. It was only after BJP leader Nitin Gadkari took him under his wing, that Phadanvis got a footing in mainstream politics.

Ironically, they were pitted against each other for the chief minister's chair and Phadanvis, who represents the generational shift in the BJP, seems to have won out. He has in his favour a track record as a relentless worker whose thrust has been developmental politics. Unlike Gadkari, Phadanvis's political journey has not been marred by charges of corruption. The two however drifted apart much earlier. The fallout was not set off by any one incident but was a gradual build up as Phadanvis won elections and became another power centre in Nagpur. There was also the fact that Phadanvis kept winning the Assembly elections while except for one election, Gadkari had always lost Assembly polls he contested.

When Gadkari took over as the state BJP chief in 2004, Phadnavis's career took a nosedive. He was in political wilderness until Gadkari left the state to become the national BJP president in 2011. It was a period when Phadanvis grew politically close to the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, the other camp in Maharashtra BJP railed against Gadkari. Munde, who had also moved on to the national scene, helped Phadanvis establish strong moorings with the BJP's central leadership in Delhi. It is Munde who started the slogan, 'Narendra in Delhi and Devendra in Maharashtra'.

As state BJP president, Phadanvis focused on taking the party into areas where it was weak. With the help of leaders of his generation, he consciously forced the party out of the shadow of the Shiv Sena and turned it into a formidable force that won 122 seats on its own in the Assembly elections, almost tripling its 2009 tally. He also played a crucial role in the final call on breaking off the 25-year old alliance with the Shiv Sena. To evaluate Phadanvis's rise, you just have to consider that that until he took over as the state BJP chief about two years ago, he was an unknown in most of Maharashtra. He is not really been a mass leader and, even at present, without the backing of the current BJP president and the prime minister, wouldn't have become chief minister.

It is a backing that stood him in good stead because to become the chief minister, he had to override the political handicap of being a Brahmin in a state dominated by Marathas. Brahmins constitute just two per cent of Maharashtra's population. Even prior to the recent election there was a clamour in the BJP to replace him as president with a Maratha. He has also had to deal with opposition within BJP and the RSS leadership who thought Gadkari was a better choice. Former RSS spokesman M G Vaidya said, "I personally did not consider Devendra as the CM candidate but he is an able leader from what I have seen of his working style. I knew his father. But the intimacy I shared with his father I do not share with Devendra."

Many political analysts of the state feel Phadanvis lacks the cunningness mandatory for the top job. Maharashtra is a state steeped in corruption that is organised by its politicians; anyone trying a clean up is going to face a huge retaliation. Since Phadanvis is too junior for the job in comparison to other contenders, he will also have a tough time keeping the disgruntled quiet in his own party. But one RSS functionary, who wanted to remain anonymous, thinks that Phadanvis will be another Narendra Modi. "He will focus on development and consolidate his position in the state and then move on to national politics. He will be PM one day," said the functionary.

Interestingly both Gadkari and Phadanvis have had severe weight issues. Both found it difficult to sit in their respective chairs in the Council and Assembly and both have undergone bariatric surgery. Both stayed slim for a while post surgery and both have now put on weight again. Phadanvis was one of the first Maharshtra politicians to really take his weight problem seriously. He lost a lot of kilos prior to his marriage and it spurred many Maharashtra politicians such as the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, Nawab Malik (NCP), Vinod Tawade (BJP) and Satish Chaturvedi (Congress) to get serious about their health.

"When I met Devendra he was thin. He told me he had been fat before," said Amruta. When he put on weight later, Amruta decided to act and got him onto an exercise and diet control program. "I started monitoring what he ate. My concern is about what he is eating outside. He has to choose from the available options which are not healthy," she said. Phadanvis loves dark chocolates and often shares a bite with his five-year old. On the meal front he is wedded to Maharashtrian cuisine like waran, bhaath, tuup, shev bhaji, paat wadi and wade bhaath over anything else. He used to love riding his Bullet motorcycle until spondylosis put an end to it. Unlike other politicians Phadanvis is not hung up about clothes, preferring wrinkle free shirts instead of the staple khadi and linen uniforms of his peers. In preparation for the big day, Phadanvis ordered five sets of trousers, shirts and jackets from the Nagpur-based Govind collection. For the last 20 years local tailor Pintu Mehadia has been stitching his clothes.

Ashish Phadanvis, his 46-year-old elder brother, is not really surprised about Devendra becoming chief minister. "I knew he will scale great heights. This is one milestone, he will go all the way," said Ashish, who is the proprietor of ToonOne, a medium-sized IT company based in Nagpur. Both meet only at family functions and rarely get time to hang out together. "Now it will be difficult to get any time with him. He is a simple person who does not have any false airs about him," said Ashish. Though he is confident that there will be no changes after his brother takes over as the state's CM, Ashish's friend a small businessman in Nagpur, who used to address Devendra as Deven has now started calling him Devendraji.

Meanwhile, as her husband gets ready for his new job, Amruta is concerned about things that all parents worry about when they move town--like Divija's schooling in Mumbai. Amruta may also have to resign from her job at the bank. Change is calling on the Phadnavis family but they are already preparing to keep their character unchanged. "It is easy to get swept away in all this. We have to stay grounded, for beneath all this is a life that has to go on," she says.

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