Maharashtra Diary: Marathas, Pawar plays, and treacherous waters
The jockeying for leadership in the state cabinet, present and future, intensifies with the Maratha quota agitations — yielding some amusing and bemusing vignettes
"We have eaten out of the same plate throughout our lives and that is why I am worried you are being set up."
That was the very emotional appeal from Nationalist Congress Party MP Supriya Sule to her older cousin Ajit Pawar, who broke away from his uncle and Supriya’s father Sharad Pawar's party in July this year to join hands with the BJP-led Eknath Shinde government.
However, with Shinde's government grappling with a plethora of problems, the Ajit Pawar group suddenly finds itself between the devil and the deep, dark sea on the Maratha quota issue. Deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is receiving much flak over his inability to tackle the reservation issue, and the government is also facing the looming (likely) disqualification of Shinde — who Fadnavis said would be sent to the Vidhan Sabha to enable him (himself?) to continue as chief minister.
So where does Ajit Pawar fit into all this? Rather like a naa ghar ka, naa ghat ka interloper — in a purgatorial limbo, apparently. Hence cousin Supriya’s concern.
Now, as we have said before, no further reservation agitations in the country — the Maratha agitation included — can be resolved without either a constitutional amendment or a caste census.
But the Maharashtra government seems to have no clue about this. Instead, it is resorting to all sorts of smart-alec moves, hoping the agitators will be taken in and the problem will go away (at least for a while). The latest is a proposal from Shinde that the Marathas be issued ‘Kunbi’ certificates to include them among the other backward classes (OBCs), so they can avail existing reservations.
Mahesh Jarange Patil, in the wisdom of his limited awareness, accepted this proposal at face value initially — but now both he and the government are facing another huge eruption in the state that could lead to a full-blown caste war.
For the Marathas, before they started asking for reservations, considered themselves only a cut below Brahmins. They are spread across 96 clans and these clans feel they are as royal as it gets. They have bitterly opposed declaring themselves as Kunbis, the small subsect of Marathas that straddles both identities (Maratha and OBC) and is looked down upon by the privileged clans.
Meanwhile, the rest of the OBC community are up in arms against this backdoor entry for the Marathas into their quota.
Ajit Pawar’s statement on the matter was interesting: When they have to marry off their daughters, they are upper-caste. When they need job reservations, they become Kunbis or OBCs.
Not all will ‘stoop’ to the latter course, though — as the clans have made clear. Which set gets to claim the higher moral ground, we’ll leave the enlightened reader to judge.
No sooner had the government thought it had calmed Jarange Patil with some unsustainable solutions for Maratha reservations, than another Maratha front has presented a fresh challenge.
The Vithoba-Rukmini temple at Pandharpur in Solapur district has been the leading shrine patronised by the Maharashtra government for decades. The maha puja during Ashadhi Ekadashi in July is usually presided over by the chief minister, who — along with his wife — leads the puja.
Every chief minister has done this to seek the blessings of Lord Vishnu for the state’s fortunes — and this includes Sharad Pawar, who is a declared atheist. (He tried to stop the tradition during his first term as chief minister but didn’t dare meddle with it in later years, following the outrage it provoked.)
The Kartik Ekadashi puja that comes after Diwali is usually conducted by a second-in-command. This year, therefore, the two powerhouses — Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar — were both looking askance at each other. But even before they could lock horns, however subtly, Sakal Maratha Samaj president Kiran Ghadge shot a warning to Fadnavis to not step into Pandharpur unless he had sorted out the Maratha reservation issue to their satisfaction.
Why warn only Fadnavis and not Ajit Pawar? Well, Ajit is a fellow Maratha — which is perhaps enough to be spared their ire. But will it be enough for him to lead the puja alone? That remains to be seen.
Foes can sometimes become great friends and saviours, especially in your hour of need.
Years ago, Sharad Pawar and Prataprao Bhosale, who considered himself a better candidate for the chief ministership, used to bicker quite publicly, trying to put each other down in no uncertain terms. Then Bhosale was injured in a road accident and rushed to a local hospital in Satara.
When Sharad Pawar heard about it, he pulled out all the stops to fly Bhosale safely to Mumbai for further treatment, and flew the best Mumbai doctors to Satara to accompany Bhosale. That, of course, saved Bhosale’s life. But once he recovered, the entire polity was flummoxed to see them go right back to bickering as bitterly as ever!
Decades later, the last week evoked a sense of dèja vù as NCP leader Eknath Khadse suffered chest pain, indicating serious health concerns, in Jalgaon. He was rushed to a local hospital. When his namesake Eknath Shinde heard of it, he too moved heaven and earth to rush an air ambulance to bring Khadse to Mumbai so he might avail better cardiac care.
Khadse was the senior-most leader in the BJP in 2014, when he was bypassed for the chief minister's chair. Sensing a threat to his own authority, it was Fadnavis who had him permanently sidelined — indeed, he made Khadse’s life so difficult that the latter had to quit the BJP. Since then, Khadse has been taking potshots at Fadnavis, and exposing all the corruption in the BJP government and the Shinde administration. Much like Bhosale vis-à-vis Pawar all those decades ago, then.
So why did Pawar help save Bhosale’s life, and why is Shinde now helping Khadse? Did/do both believe(d) that would silence their rival? Was Bhosale ungrateful to Pawar, to return to their rivalry — or did Pawar and Bhosale each need the oxygen of their bickering to survive?
And is it the same for Khadse and Shinde? Will the former pretender end up being the perfect foil to help keep the throne?
Tailpiece: Supriya Sule’s response to Ajit Pawar’s mother’s ardent wish to see her son as chief minister before she passes on: that will most certainly happen — if he has a manparivartan (change of heart) and matparivartan (change of ideology) before then!