In the 1970s, Marathi cinema threw up a comedian in Dada Kondke who went onto create history by churning out the maximum number of silver jubilee films in a row. The humour was crass, it was at times vulgar, but Kondke got away with it because of cinematic licence.
Public life offers no such freedom. Which is why Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s offer to urinate to fill up the empty dams at a time of drought has evoked such sharp responses. Even by the depressingly low standards of public discourse in the country, Pawar’s statement would give Marie Antoinette’s classic ‘let them eat cake’ remark a close run for the utter callousness of our elected representatives which it highlighted.
For years, Ajit ‘dada’ as he is popularly known, has remained in the shadows of his larger-than-life uncle Sharad Pawar. The Pawars are widely believed to be the richest political family in the country, agrarian entrepreneurs who have smoothly transitioned to a real estate-driven business model with politics as their weapon. Baramati, the pocket borough of the Pawars, is a good example of how a political constituency can be nursed by connecting local aspirations to commerce. A sleepy hamlet on the outskirts of Pune, Baramati is today a bustling town with industries, agro-processing units and education institutes dotting the landscape. The Pawars have been at the heart of the change, combining political clout with sharp entrepreneurial instincts to become the undisputed rulers of Baramati.
The Pawars have become role models for other political entrepreneurs in Maharashtra. Across western Maharashtra in particular, an entire generation of neo-rich political businessmen has emerged: typically, they have primary interests in cash-rich real estate and private education. The sugar barons of an earlier vintage are slowly being replaced by this new elite. The original sugar cooperative movement was a model based on empowering the farmers and harmonising their socio-economic interests with a broader political allegiance. This was the basis for the Congress’ continued dominance over the state’s politics for decades, and was a genuine people-centric movement nurtured by the likes of Yashwantrao Chavan and which threw up grassroot leaders like Sharad Pawar.
Ajit Pawar, by contrast, represents the generation next of Maharashtra politics which has slowly moved away from cooperative capitalism towards cash and carry crony capitalism: handing over lucrative contracts in roads, irrigation projects and mega housing schemes is the basis for rapid wealth creation. From the farmer being at the heart of decision-making, builders and contractors now wield a disproportionate influence in the political structure. Is it any surprise that a majority of the NCP MLAs and MPs have connections with the real estate sector in some form or the other? Or that the NCP insisted on retaining portfolios like irrigation and Public Works Department which offer ample scope for disbursing multi-crore contracts?
Indeed, every political party in Maharashtra now is allied to land and its ancillary business ventures. Large parts of the state have almost been parcelled out: if Ajit Pawar controls the Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad belt, the Congress’ revenue minister Narayan Rane presides over the Konkan, the Bhujbals rule Nashik, the Deshmukh family has its base in Marathwada, the Shiv Sena is well-entrenched in Thane, while the former BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s business dealings in Nagpur have been well documented. The MNS leadership too, has acquired substantial interests in real estate (Raj Thackeray’s business partner is the son of former Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi and they sold the Kohinoor Mills complex in Mumbai for Rs. 421 crore a few years ago).
Mumbai and its satellite towns are, of course, the jewel in the crown, ruthlessly exploited by land sharks and their political patrons. Half a dozen companies control a majority of the mega housing projects in the city, and it is whispered that some of the companies are simply ‘benami’, with the real ownership vesting in the corridors of Mantralaya, the state secretariat. Is it any surprise that a genuine attempt by the state chief minister Prithviraj Chavan — one of the few Maharashtra politicians who can claim to wear financial integrity as a badge of honour — to make land development rules in Mumbai more transparent has been met with such resistance from the political class?
Ajit Pawar then is only emblematic of a class of unaccountable political czars that has corroded Maharashtra’s politics (and that of several other states too). The fact is a small clique of netas and their business friends control capital accumulation with an arrogance and ruthlessness that has convinced them that they are above the law of the land. When Ajit Pawar’s alleged role in the state’s multi-crore irrigation scam was exposed a few months ago, his dramatic resignation was more out of pique at being questioned than out of any sense of remorse.
His unfortunate urine remark betrays a similar sense of arrogance. Who, after all, are faceless villagers to challenge the authority of the mighty minister by going on a hunger strike in protest against the drinking water scarcity? On the one hand, a five-time minister and a dynast from Maharashtra’s first family; on the other, a local activist fasting for 55 days. Why should the rich and powerful listen to the poor and thirsty?
Where Ajit dada tripped up is in failing to realise the depth of public anger and the media’s ability to amplify it. A decade ago, he could have perhaps got away with it; today, the manic churning of the 24-hour news wheel forced even the mighty minister to apologise. Sadly, it won’t be enough to change a rotten system.
Post-script: A week after making his infamous statement, Ajit Pawar went on a one day fast at YB Chavan’s Samadhi to ‘atone’ for his ‘sin’. What did someone say about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network. The views expressed by the author are personal.