Sharad Pawar is perhaps the only leader in India who has never been given to disaster tourism. When Mumbai came under attack in March 1993, with one of the 12 serial blasts--at the Air India building--close to his office in Mantralaya at Nariman Point, Pawar did not rush to the blast site. Instead, he chose to stand at his sixth floor window in the chief minister’s office and watch silently the fire engines, police officers and dog squads arrive and conduct rescue operations.
It was a similar story with the massive earthquake in Latur in September that year. Pawar, as chief minister, even prevented then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao from visiting the disaster spot. He told the PM that his visit would unnecessarily divert the attention of police and investigators towards VIP security and interfere with their investigation and rescue work.
So for a man never known to visit disaster sites or crime scenes even when in power, it is surprising that he should now take interest in visiting the family of a rape victim in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district 20 days after the incident. The rape and murder should have been treated as a pure crime but it is fast acquiring caste dimensions. Ahmednagar district is notorious for Maratha atrocities against Dalits: in the past Dalit boys courting Maratha girls have been lynched, murdered, hung from trees, sometimes even chopped into pieces and buried in septic tanks. But neither did Pawar or any other leader in the Congress or NCP, even the Shiv Sena or BJP, whether in power or in the opposition, feel it prudent to visit the crime scene and offer sympathy to the victims.
The Kopardi rape, however, has prompted a series of leaders wishing to drop in on the family of the victim, and this is preventing the police from investigating the case without the pressure of other considerations. Last week, the authorities prevented the president of the Bhartiya Republican Party, Prakash Ambedkar, from visiting the district. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis stopped his party affiliate, Ramdas Athawale, a minister in the union cabinet, from doing the same. The rape victim was a Maratha while her alleged brutalisers were Dalits. Marathas have always ruled Maharashtra even in modern times, but in the past couple of years they have been slipping in importance. Moreover, the Nationalist Congress Party, which is considered mostly a party of Marathas and sugar barons, has been losing base among their own community members.
The three politically significant castes in Maharashtra are that of Marathas, Dalits and Brahmins in that order. However, ever since Devendra Fadnavis was installed as chief minister of Maharashtra, there has been a Brahminical assertion in the state’s politics and Pawar, who was never casteist and prided himself on his socialist ethos, has been making many divisive statements of late. When it became apparent that Fadnavis would soon be the chief minister of the state, Pawar asked the people if they wanted to return to the Brahminical domination that they had overthrown a couple of centuries ago--the reference was to the Peshwai. Peshwas were prime ministers to the descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj but they were the de facto rulers with just a token deference to the Maratha kings. They were overthrown by the British and during the freedom struggle the Marathas joined hands with Mahatma Gandhi in the Congress in opposition to Lokmanya Balagangadhar Tilak who was the Brahmin face of the party. After Independence Marathas successfully managed to keep Brahmins at bay: the state in its long history has had only one Brahmin chief minister under the Congress (BG Kher, 1947-52) but both the Shiv Sena in 1995 and the BJP two decades later chose to install Brahmins (Manohar Joshi and Fadnavis) as chief minister.
That has been rankling the Maratha politicians who are conscious that the BJP is desperately trying to build bases with the two significant political communities with whom they have so far had little connect: Dalits and Marathas. Athawale, whose base among Dalits is, however, questionable was made a minister for that very reason. That did not bother Pawar much for, as Prof Ramesh Kamble of the Sociology department at Bombay University, says, “Daiit leadership has always been at the mercy of the mainstream political parties.” Athawale was first an ally of the Congress and then of the NCP, later of the Shiv Sena before becoming a minister in the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, running true to Kamble’s observation about needing upper caste patronage to remain politically significant. However, when Fadnavis recommended Sambhaji Raje, a scion of the Kolhapur branch of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s descendants, who had contested the Lok Sabha polls (and lost) in 2009 on a NCP ticket, for nomination to the Rajya Sabha, Pawar saw red. In an unusual statement for a veteran, mature and astute political leader like him, Pawar surprised all by saying, “While Chhatrapatis used to once upon a time appoint Pashwas, now a Peshwa is appointing a Chhatrapati.”
It was meant to rile Maratha pride but by and large left the people cold. Now, in Ahmednagar, this casteist politics is playing out to the maximum in the shadow of a brutal rape--each community is trying to maximise its gains even as fresh cases of rape and molestation are reported and desperate attempts are made to give them as well a casteist colour. The dilemma for Pawar is that even Dalits are a huge voter base for his party. Marathas are upset at the number of cases registered against them - they claim falsely – for atrocities against Dalits under the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. Dalit atrocity, however, is a reality in Maratha country. There has been a long standing demand, recently articulated by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray for abolition of the act. That, however, is the only protection and safety valve afforded to Dalits. Perhaps that is why Pawar tried a tight balancing act by speaking out against the abolition of the act without parliamentary consensus. He is clearly running with the hares and hunting with the hounds – on the very slippery slope of caste politics. One slip could very well turn him into mince meat. Pawar is too shrewd not to be aware of that pitfall.
(The views expressed are personal.)