Mee punha yein, Mee punha yein, Mee punha yein! (I will be back, I will be back, I will be back!)
These lines by outgoing Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, spoken in his characteristic, high-pitched style at a rally during the Assembly elections, have inspired several memes. It was a defining moment in the campaign.
However, like cricket, this election, too, has proved to be a game full of glorious uncertainties. After the BJP, Shiv Sena and the NCP failed to muster the numbers, governor B.S. Koshiyari recommended President's Rule and Ram Nath Kovind signed the proclamation. This is only the third time President’s Rule has been imposed in Maharashtra, after 1980 and 2014.
The results, indeed, had turned out to be quite a mixed bag for all. And while the Shiv Sena alleged the BJP was reneging on its promise for a rotational chief minister’s post, its overtures to the Congress and NCP did not bear fruit.
One clear takeaway - Devendra Fadnavis, the man who almost become the BJP and the government in Maharashtra, may now be staring at truncated authority.
Most journalists who covered the state legislature knew Mr Fadnavis as a legislator on the Opposition benches who would argue with the earnest air of a schoolboy. Despite the presence of veterans like Gopinath Munde and Narayan Rane, Mr Fadnavis stood out for his House interventions. Elected to the Assembly from Nagpur in 1999, Mr Fadnavis, whose father Gangadharrao was among those credited with building up the Jan Sangh in Maharashtra, also held the record of being the youngest mayor of Maharashtra's second capital.
In 2013, the cold war between two rival groups in the BJP, one led by Munde, who was the party’s most influential leader in Maharashtra, and the other by fellow Nagpurkar Nitin Gadkari, saw Mr Fadnavis appointed as the BJP's state unit president.
After the runway success of the BJP-Sena saffron alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Munde became rural development minister at the Centre, but made his ambitions to return to Maharashtra clear. He, however, sadly died in a road accident in Delhi soon afterwards.
In the subsequent Assembly polls, where the BJP snapped its 25-year alliance with the Sena, Mr Fadnavis was not projected as a chief minister candidate despite broad hints. The reason was clear. He was a Brahmin, and since the community has fewer numbers in a state dominated by the politics of the Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster, with a strong presence of other backwards, this would have been politically inconvenient.
However, after the BJP emerged as the single largest party, Mr Fadnavis outmanoeuvred veterans like Eknath Khadse to become CM. This also fell into the pattern of the BJP leadership nominating a face from a non-dominant social group to serve as a rallying point for smaller castes. The other logic behind this move suggested that this CM, who would be “nominated” rather than “elected”, would be beholden to the leadership and not develop aspirations of his own.
Mr Khadse joined the state Cabinet as Mr Fadnavis’ number two, but lost no opportunity to make it evident that he deserved to lead the state.
In 2016, a flurry of charges were made against Mr Khadse. This ranged from a “hacker” claiming he was in touch with Pakistan-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim to impropriety in purchase of land near Pune. Claiming innocence, Mr Khadse quit the Cabinet.
As CM, Mr Fadnavis ran what was seen as a one-man show. Indeed, senior bureaucrats admitted that Mr Fadnavis, who also held charge of the home portfolio, controlled the most powerful chief minister’s office since the days of Sharad Pawar’s final chief ministerial stint in 1992-1995.
Mr Fadnavis was seen as a leader engaged in top-down governance, choosing to trust a bunch of selected bureaucrats, police officials and private sector “experts” in his office to drive the agenda. Speaking off the record, senior BJP ministers admitted that Mr Fadnavis was their sole conduit when it came to communications with the central leadership. Much like his mentor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr Fadnavis had become one with the government and party apparatus in Maharashtra. The second chief minister after Vasantrao Naik to complete a full term, he seemed to be on course for a second stint. His admirers even spoke about Mr Fadnavis being a “PM in waiting”.
However, like many best-laid plans, this too came crashing down. When the results of the Maharashtra Assembly elections were declared, the BJP, which had weaned around 13 Opposition legislators into its fold, in addition to its bench strength of 122, ended up with just 105 seats.
Unlike in Haryana, where he moved fast to form a BJP-led government, party chief Amit Shah was missing from action in Maharashtra. Flies on the wall said this was because the central BJP leadership was miffed with Mr Fadnavis for overplaying his hand, concentrating authority in himself and for the general overconfidence which affected their performance. Another veteran who had stayed away was Union minister Nitin Gadkari. He was seen as Mr Fadnavis’ rival, but could have helped influence the Shiv Sena to come on board.
Anti-incumbency votes crystallised behind the NCP and its supremo Sharad Pawar who put up an inspired performance. The Enforcement Directorate notice to Mr Pawar led to the veteran leader leading a massive pushback. An image of Mr Pawar which will endure has the 79-year-old cancer survivor addressing a rally at Satara in the pouring rain.
The agrarian distress, a sluggish economy, anger among the dominant Marathas at being sidelined in the larger power matrix, and rebellion against official Shiv Sena and BJP candidates, some allegedly engineered by the latter’s leaders, pulled down the BJP-Shiv Sena’s tally.
Even if the BJP eventually manages to bring the Sena around to form the government, with Mr Fadnavis at the helm, straws in the wind suggest that he may end up with a largely truncated authority. The other likely scenario is Mr Fadnavis occupying the Leader of the Opposition’s seat in the Maharashtra Assembly, where he will be the man to watch. After all, his story had begun on the Opposition benches back in 1999....