Eye on Maharashtra: Underestimate Pawar at your own peril

Fadnavis and Raj Thackeray forgot that Sharad Pawar's closest friends and advisors are Brahmins. When Pawar called a meeting of Brahmin organisations recently, all but one in the state responded

Eye on Maharashtra: Underestimate Pawar at your own peril

Sujata Anandan

Veteran journalist and Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kumar Ketkar once quipped that no political leader in Maharashtra had better sense of history than Sharad Pawar. Most other leaders had no understanding of the state’s social dynamics, he had said.

That statement stayed with me and I was reminded of it when I discovered that Raj Thackeray appears to be completely ignorant of the history of his own family, and oblivious of his grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray, a fiercely secular leader of his times.

Long before India’s independence, Prabodhankar had led a campaign against Brahmins and attempted to break the upper caste domination of society. He did not succeed of course, because there were Gandhian Maratha and Brahmin leaders who got together to break the back of this anti-upper caste movement. However, their Gandhian disposition ensured that the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos of the state was not entirely destroyed at the grassroots.

Prabodhankar’s anti-Brahminism-- the language he used against Brahmins would turn our ears red today-- partly explains why his son Bal Thackeray never trusted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), even when it became expedient to form an alliance with the BJP in later years.

Uddhav Thackeray is more his grandfather’s grandson than his father’s political heir and thus has little difficulty shedding the baggage of a past alliance with the BJP and accusing it of dividing the society. He would never made the mistake his cousin did of accusing Sharad Pawar of being an atheist or anti-Brahmin when he knows that is precisely what his own social reformist grandfather was.

Sharad Pawar – whatever his politics is -- is fiercely secular and an undoubtedly anticasteist leader. He is equally comfortable with Brahmins as he is with his own Maratha community, he is not paranoid about Muslims and his commitment to the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos keeps every community in good humour with him. If he is partial to any one group, that is the farmers – he loves to describe himself as a farmer rather than a politician – and he is comfortable with farmers belonging to all castes and communities.

By calling him anti-Brahmin, Raj Thackeray and Devendra Fadnavis did him an injustice. Sharad Pawar’s closest advisers and friends are Brahmins, drawn from bureaucrats, police officers, writers, poets, entrepreneurs and intellectuals. Many of them he has co-opted into several of his private trusts and institutions and over the years, as chief minister and minister at the Centre, has had them appointed to various government bodies as well.

The state’s first chief minister YB Chavan did the same but even earlier Chhatrapati Shivaji was a fiercely secular king with Brahmin prime ministers and advisors, Muslim generals and bodyguards and could not have succeeded without the support of people at the grassroots. They included all castes, including Dalits and adivasis, nomads and traders (would be today’s OBCs) and this established a syncretic tradition of communal harmony in the state which was vitiated only by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai under Bal Thackeray and the RSS in Nagpur.

While Maharashtra is known for being Maratha territory, Brahmins have always been the key factor in the state. Marathas were indeed upset at Brahmins usurping Shivaji’s legacy by the Brahmin Peshwas. But modern-day Maratha leaders knew how to co-opt Brahmins into their administration without ceding complete power to them.

Pawar had maintained continuity which was broken by Fadnavis with RSS support between 2014 and 2019 when they tried to destroy the state’s syncretic culture by anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit policies, propping up Marathas to agitate for reservations in order to overcome the Dalit domination of the administration (many Dalits have ended up as collectors, tehsildars and talatis thus dominating the revenue department and lording over the upper castes in the villages).

By and large the RSS failed in this grand plan of dividing communities because they were up against the greatest social engineer in modern India (Pawar has been setting up mixed settlements of castes and communities in the villages) and he fought fiercely at the grassroots to retain Maharashtra’s social ethos even when he was out of power.

So now as the karta-dharta of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, he is not about to allow a pair of historically-challenged political pygmies to destroy the culture.

In Maharashtra Hindus and Muslims continue to seek blessings at each-others’ places of worship, where Dalits’ entry to temples is least contested in the country by Brahmin priests and an atheist and rational chief minister is as comfortable presiding at the annual puja at the temple of the state deity at Pandharpur as he is at eschewing tilaks on his forehead in public places.

So, it was not surprising when Sharad Pawar sent for a gamut of Brahmin organisations for a meeting with him in Pune last week. All but one organisation, openly associated with Fadnavis, responded. Everyone was tightlipped about what really transpired but the message was clear – there is no distrust between Pawar and Brahmins as Fadnavis and Raj Thackeray were attempting to portray.

One cannot call this as another attempt by Pawar at social engineering but it surely is one at cutting his opponents down to size. The moral of the story being: Pawar is a master politician who can turn the political tide simply over tea and samosas. Without a shot being fired, a loudspeaker blaring or a Hanuman Chalisa chanted.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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