Making sense of Maharashtra, the Patils, and the Pawars

This is the last piece written by Sujata Anandan before she passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday of a cardiac arrest. As the NH family mourns her untimely death, we present this diary she filed

Pawar, Shinde, Pawar, Fadnavis — a mess of whose making?
Pawar, Shinde, Pawar, Fadnavis — a mess of whose making?

Sujata Anandan

Can the speaker of a legislative Assembly order an investigation by a SIT (special investigation team)? Whether he can or cannot, Rahul Narvekar, speaker of the Maharashtra Assembly, has done just that, ordering a SIT to look into Manoj Jarange Patil’s sensational but bizarre allegation that home minister Devendra Fadnavis was plotting to have him assassinated. Fadnavis had dismissed the charge and called Patil delusional.

What changed for Narvekar to suddenly take the little-known Patil, who spearheaded a fresh agitation for Maratha reservation and extracted the promise of a 10 per cent reservation from chief minister Eknath Shinde? A far more organised and legitimate agitation in 2018 had failed to cut much ice, leave alone getting an assurance from the government.

This led several observers to believe Patil to be a puppet, possibly of the RSS; but why would he then target Fadnavis, who is close to the Sangh? The silence of Ajit Pawar and the distance maintained by the MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) added fuel to speculation but the mystery of how Patil funded his impressive march to Mumbai remains to be resolved.

Patil, who emerged out of nowhere last year to steal the limelight on the Maratha reservation issue, was possibly too much of a novice to appreciate that activists, NGOs and politicians cannot afford to burn all their bridges. After his sudden and meteoric projection in the state, he is today suddenly friendless. He had a tepid start with a fast unto death following a lathi charge on him and his handful of supporters. When the Shinde government dispatched Sambhaji Bhide, an RSS ideolgue, to persuade him to call off his fast, it convinced most people that the RSS was behind him.

Since then, the agitation has gone through several twists and turns and many flip-flops by the government and backtracking on promises. When Shinde promised to issue 'Kunbi' certificates to all Marathas, OBCs led by Chhagan Bhujbal were up in arms against it. They felt this amounted to allowing a backdoor entry to Marathas in the OBC (Other Backward Class) category.

Kunbis are a subsect of Marathas, and already recognised as an OBC. It upset aristocratic Marathas who had always claimed royal descent and proclaimed that they were descendants of Rajput kings and clans from northern India.

Fadnavis stepped in to clarify that the certificates would not be issued automatically or arbitrarily; that the government would first verify the claims. Jarange Patil turned his ire on Fadnavis and accused him of attempting to destroy the agitation and allegedly planning to have him killed. That unsubstantiated and far-fetched claim had few takers and few took them seriously; which is why developments in the assembly made little sense.

In any case, the Maratha vote is once again up for grabs this election season. Shinde is a Maratha, but has no base among them, having always been seen as a Shiv Sainik. Sena supremo Bal Thackeray set huge store by loyalty, but never indulged in caste politics. Ajit Pawar is the more prominent Maratha in government and seen as such, but he is also up against his more illustrious uncle, who had once described himself as ‘mee mard Maratha aahe’ (I am a macho Maratha man).

While the Shinde government is cleaning up the mess of its own making, the MVA is sitting pretty with more Marathas of consequence in its ranks than in the Maha Yuti. Jarange Patil appears to be isolated politically for now, and one wonders how long his supporters will stick with him.

Supriya Sule at Sharad Pawar's NCP symbol launch (photo: PTI)
Supriya Sule at Sharad Pawar's NCP symbol launch (photo: PTI)

Gatecrashing parties, Pawar-style

The Pawar family saga is never-ending, it would appear. First, deputy chief minister and Sharad Pawar's nephew Ajit appeared to be wishing for his uncle’s early death. A rattled Ajit Pawar later withdrew the remarks and said his words were distorted by the media.

The uncle then testily asked the nephew to explain how 2024 could be his ‘last election’, since he has merely campaigned after 2014. Ajit Pawar then let it be known that he would be fielding his wife Sunetra Pawar in the election against cousin and Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule and nephew Rohit Pawar on Pawars’ home turf.

Rohit is everything that Ajit Pawar’s own son Parth is not. Parth is, in fact, the only Pawar to lose a grassroots election in 2019. It is Rohit Pawar who is now being groomed by an indulgent Sharad Pawar for leadership roles in the party. Both Rohit and Parth have had similar educations abroad, but it is Rohit who is seen to have better grassroots connections.

It is not a coincidence that central agencies have been unleashed against him to cut him down to size. But with Rohit proving to be another ‘mard Maratha’ on the campaign trail, Ajit’s supporters have been unleashed against him.

That’s why everybody was taken aback when Supriya and Rohit closed ranks and gate-crashed into an official meeting presided over by Ajit Pawar in which the deputy chief minister was discussing water issues with government officials. When Supriya was told she was not welcome and asked why she had walked in uninvited, she replied that her constituency had severe water issues, so she would not miss out on an important meeting.

Pawar watchers in the state exclaimed that the incident was vintage Sharad Pawar, and recalled how the senior Pawar as chief minister of Maharashtra had barged uninvited into a birthday celebration being held for union minister S.B. Chavan, who had deliberately insulted Pawar by not inviting him.

But that did not deter Pawar — he used state intelligence to ascertain the venue, and waited for Chavan to arrive at his own party; within 15 minutes, the chief minister was there with a huge bouquet of flowers. Chavan had hoped to make the headlines the next day about how he had snubbed the powerful chief minister; instead, he had to smile and beam at Pawar and hug him.

Newspaper headlines the next day were all about Pawar’s graciousness in the face of the insult, and how he had left within five minutes without having any of the cake or wine on offer. Supriya’s gatecrashing was not quite in the same category, but she too made her point.

Trumpets and flutes

The award of the turahi or trumpet symbol to the ‘Nationalist Congress Party – Sharadchandra Pawar’ seems to have upset several rivals. The turahi in Maharashtra is known more as Chhatrapati Shivaji's ceremonial trumpet, which heralded the arrival of members of royalty. All political parties continue to use the trumpet at the launch of their political campaigns. Now, they dare not do that anymore lest Sharad Pawar’s NCP gets more traction.

Fadnavis tried to turn the table as the symbol was unveiled at Shivaji’s Raigad fort, by claiming that Sharad Pawar, 40 years his senior, had never visited the fort in the last 40 years. “What would you know about that?” sneered people on social media, and recalled that Pawar had launched an election campaign for the late Abdul Rehman Antulay in the late 1990s from Raigad.

Antulay was particularly fond of Shivaji, installing the warrior king’s portrait at the entrance to Mantralaya, something no Maratha chief minister had thought of doing before. He had also funded the cleaning up and repair of all forts of Shivaji across Maharashtra, and never launched a campaign without bowing to Shivaji at Raigad and Lord Ganesha at his village temple in the district.

The social media backlash forced Fadnavis to backtrack, especially after he was described as a pioari (a reedy bamboo flute). What chance does a flute have when confronted with the trumpet, they seemed to suggest. 

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