Sharad Pawar, the last man standing for both Marathas and OBCs
Unvanquished by hidden enemies even among his own as both communities look to him to sort out their mess
Sharad Pawar was born in 1942. So when he left school in Baramati, it would have been between 1955 and '57. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as a category were simply non-existent at the time, Constitutional recognition being given only to Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Tribes (STs). OBCs became a big force only post the Mandal Commission report being published during Prime Minister VP Singh's tenure in the late 1980s.
So it is ridiculous to think that the Nationalist Congress Party president and Rajya Sabha MP, a proud Maratha — mee mard Maratha (I am a Maratha man), as he oftentimes describes himself, though the translation misses the macho emphasis of that statement — would have registered himself as an OBC to avail reservations.
Yet over the past few days, a marksheet purported to belong to Pawar has gone viral on social media, making him out to be an OBC. What’s more, the marksheet is in English, though Pawar's school in Baramati was a Marathi-medium one, and he switched to an English-medium college in Pune only after his school-leaving examination.
While Pawar has been advised rest after a stressful family Diwali gathering where 'rebel' nephew Ajit Pawar and his family were also present, his daughter Supriya Sule dismissed the marksheet as fake and laughable. "It has become very fashionable to produce fake certificates these days. But this one is just not ridiculous, it is also simply juvenile," she said.
Pawar later told reporters at the family Diwali gathering that it is impossible to conceal anyone's caste in India even with fake certificates. We are what we are born as, and it is futile for anyone to try such antics at this stage. His school-leaving certificate confirms him as Maratha, and the fake marksheet is irrelevant, he said, leaving his loyalists like Jayant Patil (a Maratha) and Jitendra Awhad (OBC) to take on the purveyors of fake certificates.
So why has Pawar now been targeted with a fake marksheet? The genesis lies in the ongoing Maratha reservation agitation, which Maharashtra's Eknath Shinde government has dealt with dangerously by issuing kunbi caste certificates to Marathas seeking reservations. Kunbi is a sub-sect of Marathas who are traditionally farmers but today straddle two boats — they enjoy OBC reservations and still like to be seen as Marathas.
As Ajit Pawar says, "When they are marrying off their daughters, they want to be Marathas. But when it comes to job reservations, they are quite happy being OBCs."
But that apart, Marathas comprise 33 per cent of the voting population in Maharashtra and no one represents them more effectively than Sharad Pawar. Most chief ministers of Maharashtra have been Marathas, but leadership has not come naturally to every one of them. Only three such chief ministers had good resonance among the masses on this score — YB Chavan, the state's first chief minister and Sharad Pawar's mentor, Vasantdada Patil, Pawar's rank rival, and Pawar himself.
All others, such as Vilasrao Deshmukh, SB Chavan, his son Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan, while good administrators, never really made the cut regarding Maratha leadership. That leaves Pawar as the last man standing since even chief minister Shinde, a Maratha, has been unable to connect with the community.
That is why it is so important for the BJP and some Marathas who have always resented Pawar's leadership to bring him down a peg or two and disorientate his supporters about his status. Already facing hostilities on the Maratha, Muslim and Dalit fronts in the state, the BJP recognises that Pawar's leadership of the Maha Vikas Aghadi and his key role in the INDIA bloc places him in a unique position with Marathas and farmers.
So what better than to call him an OBC and make other Marathas suspucious of him? But it is not just the BJP, the 96 clans of 'original Marathas' too, always have had a problem with Pawar who, despite not belonging to any of the erstwhile royal families, has managed to rise to the top and establish his place as the greatest Maratha leader of all time.
There are six 'royal' Maratha families — the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Holkars of Indore (originally a nomadic community before becoming one of the Maratha sardars), the Bhosales (all of who are descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji), the Deshmukhs (the clan of former CM Vilasrao Deshmukh) and the Jadhavs, who trace their ancestry to Shivaji’s maternal grandfather.
But there are 90 other clans who trace their own origins back to the Chauhans and Sisodias of Rajasthan, and all 96 clans are proud of their royal origins. Pawar, though a Maratha, is from an ordinary farming family, about which he has always carried a chip on his shoulder, and been suspicious of all the aristocratic clans throughout.
Despite the chip, or perhaps because of it, Pawar has made sure it is his family which will be remembered more than all the other clans for leaving it stamp on Maharashtra, and has been comfortable enough in his skin to clearly state that Marathas are not OBCs. Some of them may be poor, but none of them can call themselves underprivileged, he has said.
When Marathas first demanded a place in the OBC category during the Mandal agitations of the late 1980s and early 1990s, then chief minister Pawar had been firm about turning them down. But he included 52 smaller and insignificant castes among the OBCs. So while OBCs have been hailing him as the greatest OBC leader, there are those who are not beyond making use of that tag to create mischief before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls to bring down Pawar, the MVA and the INDIA bloc by scattering the state's largest vote bank.
Clearly, Pawar is not very well liked by even his own Marathas. On the other hand, he is an atheist who makes no attempt to appease any Hindutva ideologues, and so is hated by the RSS too. Not surprisingly, having stayed at the top of electoral politics for 56 of his 62 years in active public life, he has many hidden enemies who wish to bring him down forever.
Trying to label him as OBC and publicising his efforts to expand the OBC category during his time as chief minister, however, could have the opposite effect. At a time when OBCs are the most coveted of the castes, his actions to expand their base has only endeared him to them more.
While Chhagan Bhujbal and Dhananjay Munde, the most prominent OBC leaders in Maharashtra, are now publicly protesting and gathering support against a 'backdoor entry' by Marathas onto their turf, they have not said a word against Sharad Pawar, who has given them the best breaks of their careers. Whatever the future of this newly created caste war in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar will not be so easily vanquished.