Cry, my beloved Maharashtra!

Secular leaders in Maharashtra rue the destruction of the social fabric of a liberal state, now seemingly overrun by gangsters

Ajit Pawar, leader of the newly declared 'real' NCP party addresses supporters, against a backdrop of the clock symbol (photo: National Herald archives)
Ajit Pawar, leader of the newly declared 'real' NCP party addresses supporters, against a backdrop of the clock symbol (photo: National Herald archives)

Sujata Anandan

With the Election Commission (EC) declaring the breakaway Ajit Pawar faction to be the ‘real’ NCP—even before the Speaker of the Assembly decides on the split—this round has gone decidedly in favour of the nephew.

For the Rajya Sabha election due on 27 February, the EC has accepted the name suggested by the parent party: ‘Nationalist Congress Party—Sharadchandra Pawar’. The Ajit Pawar-led NCP is not quite happy with this. Sharad Pawar’s name clearly counts and the Maratha warrior is not known to give up without a fight.

Ajit, now 63 years old, was in primary school when his uncle, now 84, was building his career in politics. Keen to wrest that political legacy from his cousin—Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, MP from Baramati—Ajit joined hands with the BJP. A majority of the NCP legislators support him—this is the ground on which the EC declared his faction the ‘real’ NCP.

By all appearances, the nephew has outsmarted the uncle. Or has he?

While leaving it up to the EC to decide, the Supreme Court observed that the loyalty of legislators cannot be a measure to decide the support of the party organisation. Legislators are both fielded and denied tickets by the party, the court pointed out. Logically, a majority of legislators, after getting elected, cannot turn against or take over the party. The EC’s decision is, therefore, almost certain to be challenged.

For Pawar Sr, it must be painful to see the party he built over 25 years being handed over to his rebellious nephew. The NCP that he built—after splitting from the Indian National Congress in 1999—was a recognised national party, one of six, until last year.

With Ajit Pawar’s ambition limited to the state, observers are waiting to see if he can turn the NCP into a national party again.

Ajit ‘Dada’ Pawar’s influence does not extend beyond a few pockets, nor does his party have any presence in Vidarbha and Marathwada. As Sharad Pawar’s acolyte Jitendra Awhad said, tauntingly, “You are not even known outside the state. Let’s see you retain the NCP’s influence in the 20 other states where (Sharad) Pawar-saheb has a presence.”

Ajit Pawar knows only too well that the NCP has always been synonymous with Sharad Pawar. Barely two days before the EC decision, Ajit told a gathering in Baramati, their home turf, not to be sentimental in voting for his ailing uncle.

Most people were not amused, recalling the ailing uncle campaigning in pouring rain in Satara, former seat of Chhatrapati Shivaji and his descendant’s parliamentary constituency. In 2019, the old man had taken on the might of the BJP and its candidate’s royal lineage to secure victory for a little-known bureaucrat.

The backlash forced the nephew to regret his statement.

Uddhav Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena (UBT), raises a fist. He has his demons to slay too—including his own father's shadow (photo: National Herald archives)
Uddhav Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena (UBT), raises a fist. He has his demons to slay too—including his own father's shadow (photo: National Herald archives)
National Herald archives

Slaying the demons of Hindutva?

For years now, Shiv Sena (UBT) president Uddhav Thackeray has been distancing himself from his father Bal Thackeray’s extremist Hindutva. Eschewing violence and steadily toning down Balasaheb’s shrill rhetoric, Uddhav was both ridiculed by Hindutva bigots and failed to convince liberal society.

However, both liberals and minorities were won over by his even-handed dealings as chief minister. At the height of the Covid pandemic, he banned both Ganpati aartis and namaaz on the streets. When the BJP and his cousin Raj Thackeray attempted to provoke communal flare-ups during Ramzan by reciting the Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques, he allowed it 15 minutes before and after the azaan, 100 metres away from any mosque.

Since then, however, Uddhav Thackeray has had a tough time emphasising his conciliatory brand of Hindutva while not going so far as to upset other partners in the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance.

Here’s where the BJP unwittingly lent him a hand—by not sending him an invite to the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, until the nth moment.

This released Uddhav from a possible ‘dharamsankat’. A no-show would have damaged his political interests. Showing up would have affected his relationship with the INDIA group, which had turned down the invitation en bloc.

Astutely, Uddhav launched his own election campaign on the same day (22 January) from the temple town of Nashik. It is here that Ram, Sita and Lakshman are believed to have broken their journey en route to Ayodhya on the way back from Lanka at the end of their exile.

Nashik’s Kalaram temple was where B.R. Ambedkar and Sane Guruji, a social reformer of the 1930s, led the agitation over the lower castes being denied entry by Brahmin priests. Uddhav’s grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray’s incendiary writings supported the campaign.

No less fiery were the grandson’s words, as he declared, “We proudly fly our saffron flags, it is you who are tearing them down. Your Hindutva believes in starting fires between religious communities. Our Hindutva is about keeping home fires burning, yours is about burning homes down.”

The balancing act that Uddhav Thackeray is attempting between socialism, secularism and Hindutva was apparent in the next leg of his campaign in the Konkan, when he declared he was not Narendra Modi’s enemy—it was not he who had abandoned the BJP but the other way round.

Lest anyone imagine he was making overtures to Modi, however, he added that the current regime was rife with rakshasas. “If these demons return, we will be left with no Republic at all; and from next year, Republic Day will become Demonic Day in the country.”

Perhaps only a friend turned foe could be so cutting.

Now ‘Mughlai’ Marathas?

The mishandled Maratha reservation issue has clearly caused a rift in the Maha Yuti alliance ruling the state. The seriously uncharismatic chief minister, Eknath Shinde, has been attempting to assert his Maratha identity. In the process of seeking kinship with the 33 per cent Marathas in the state, he may have alienated 52 per cent of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who are protesting his decision to give what they describe as “backdoor entry” to the Marathas, by issuing ‘Kunbi’ certificates (Kunbi being a sub-sect of the Marathas and classified as one of the OBCs).

Leading this agitation across the state is food and civil supplies minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who has asserted all along that he supports reservation for Marathas, but not if it eats into the OBC quota.

OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal is opposed to the Kunbi quota being used to cover Maratha reservations
OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal is opposed to the Kunbi quota being used to cover Maratha reservations

With multiple agitations picking up pace, Bhujbal’s rebelliousness has provoked Maha Yuti MLAs into telling him he has no business continuing as minister in a government he openly opposes.

This triggered a startling revelation from Bhujbal: He had already resigned on 16 November 2023, days before he decided to hit the streets. For fear of opening a wider chasm in an already fissured government, Shinde seems not to have accepted it.

Bhujbal, who has been trying for years to emerge as an OBC leader of consequence, has now been given the opportunity on a golden platter. The element of ‘sacrificing’ a ministerial post and risking persecution by central agencies—which is why he had joined the government in the first place—is a risk calculated for gain.

However, he has stiff competition in Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi leader Prakash Ambedkar, who has been trying to reinvent himself as a leader not just of Dalits but also the larger non-Brahminical community.

Ambedkar added a twist to Bhujbal’s spiel.

There have always been two kinds of Marathas, he said, the Nizami Marathas (from the Marathwada region ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad) and the ryoti (farming) Marathas from the rest of the hinterland. While the former were loyal to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the latter swore allegiance to Shivaji.

Ambedkar’s wrath is directed at the ‘Mughlai’ Marathas, who betrayed Shivaji’s son Sambhaji to Aurangzeb and have always been a rich and privileged community.

Why should they seek reservation, asks Ambedkar, when it is the poor, underprivileged ryoti Marathas who actually need it? No wonder the chief minister is dodging the issue—he can neither swallow the threats nor spit out their bitter residue.

Cry, my beloved Maharashtra!

"Kuthe nevun thevala Maharashtra majha (What have you brought my Maharashtra to)!” exclaimed Sharad Pawar, as two ruling alliance members indulged in a shootout inside a police station in Thane over a land dispute.

Echoing the sarcastic BJP slogan against the NCP in 2014 that pointed to the lack of development in the state and corruption in the government, today it does ring true as a cry from the heart—pointing not only to the destruction of the social fabric of a liberal, lawful state, but also to a government that seems to be overrun by gangsters.

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