Within minutes of Pratibha Patil being ‘chosen’ as the UPA’s candidate for president, a chain sms was floated: “After 300 years... the Marathas are finally set to conquer Delhi”, a reminder that defeat in the third battle of Panipat still rankles. The next morning, the Marathi papers were equally euphoric: “Maharashtra’s day in the sun has come at last!” thundered one headline. Even the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamna, set aside political differences to celebrate what it described as a “historic opportunity” for the ‘Marathi manoos’. I must confess, my regional genes were riding high too at the prospect of a Maharashtrian lady occupying the highest constitutional post in the country.
Who then cared that Patil had only been chosen on the presidential principle of the lowest common denominator, selected after half a dozen male candidates had been vetoed? Who was bothered that in her selection was also the humiliation of another son of the soil, Shivraj Patil, who must really wonder how he can continue in government as home minister after being so publicly rejected by the Left? Was anyone really interested in questioning how the very Maharashtra politicians who were taking delight in her choice had been responsible for banishing her from the state not so long ago? And what of the ultimate irony: Pratibha Patil made it to the highest office, not because she was a Maharashtrian (or not just because she was a woman for that matter), but because she was also married to a Shekhawat from Rajasthan, and hence could neutralise her prime opponent?
And what of the other rather embarrassing circumstance of Patil’s nomination, namely her unswerving loyalty to the Gandhi family? In an otherwise worthy political career, Patil has revealed no glimmer of threatening talent, no unsettling flamboyance, no unnecessary excellence or extraordinary charisma that her supporters and patrons might undoubtedly have hated or seen as a rival power centre. After all in our republic of mediocrity, flamboyance and star quality don’t really get you very far (and nor should they, sniff the politically correct, in their constant hankering for “low profile good people”) Instead hers has been a textbook path to upward mobility in the Congress: stay quiet, work quietly, stay obedient to the “high command” and who knows the highest gaddi in the land may well be yours.
At one level, the collective euphoria in the Maharashtrian middle class over the rise of Patil (or Patil-Shekhawat) is understandable. Maharashtra has thrown up great cricketers (more centuries have been scored by Mumbaikars than the rest of the country put together), outstanding musicians, playwrights and scholars. But in public life, there has been a feeling that post-independence India has not given the state its due. It’s a sense of resentment that perhaps stretches back to 1920, the death of Lokmanya Tilak and the passing of the baton of national leadership to Gandhi.
The shifting of the power base away from the Maharashtrian Brahmins led one strand in the direction of the RSS and Hindutva politics while another moved towards the intellectual traditions of the left. The dominant Marathas, on the other hand, embraced the Congress, captured power in the state, but were unable to translate their regional supremacy onto the national stage. The Marathas will tell you of deep-rooted conspiracies, of how from YB Chavan to Sharad Pawar, the ruling elite of the Delhi durbar refused to accept the authority of the regional satraps of Maharashtra. As a result, the prime ministerial chair remained a distant dream for the men from the Sahyadris.
There is some basis for this grievance. The Indira Gandhi years in particular saw the deliberate marginalisation of the regional warlords, and the imposition of puppet Chief Ministers, best exemplified by Babasaheb Bhosale who, it is said, was made CM by Indira Gandhi only to teach the squabbling Maratha leaders a “lesson they must not forget”. In the high command culture of the Congress, regional leaders with a mass base have always been seen as a ‘threat’; national leaders are those who will draw in no votes, but will ‘manage’ the political environment in the capital.
And yet, if Maharashtra’s leaders were to truly introspect, they would have to accept their own role in squandering their inheritance. Take Sharad Pawar. Once the country’s youngest Chief Minister and a man gifted with administrative acumen, Pawar has always found it difficult to take the step up from regional boss to national leader. Poor communication skills and a compulsive tendency to cut a deal with rivals instead of fighting on principle has meant that Pawar has never acquired the kind of national stature he might have hoped to achieve.
Pawar, in a sense, exemplifies the failings of the contemporary Maharashtra political elite. If the Bengali Left has been burdened with an innate superiority complex (many of them still genuinely believe in the Gokhale dictum of a century ago that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow), the inward-looking attitude of the Maratha leadership has bred a certain inferiority complex, and made it difficult for them to adjust to a wider, more complex world (which is why Pawar needs a Praful Patel as his political brand manager).
Even the ‘progressive’ Maharash-trian middle class has failed to rise above its origins. Instead of embracing the cosmopolitanism of Mumbai, they were convinced that they were being encircled by the ‘outsider’. The rise and growth of the Shiv Sena over the years is stark evidence of the decline in the intellectual traditions of the Maharashtrian middle class. That Bal Thackeray’s demagoguery and rabble-rousing has proved more durable and effective than his ‘secular-liberal’ critics is a reminder of the ideological bankruptcy of the social movements that were once Maharashtra’s badge of pride.
How can Maharashtra reconcile its progressive ethos with the banning of books, the selective targeting of journalists, the victimisation of minorities, and the growing incidents of attacks on Dalits? Where is the vigorous debate in the state when students from north India are beaten up in the name of Maharashtrian asmita? Or when one of its most prestigious libraries is ransacked by a mob, destroying valuable archival material, allegedly because the image of Shivaji has been tarnished? Is this a state genuinely committed to a forward-looking society, or one that seeks to prey on animosities and past hatreds?
Indeed, when some of Maharash-tra’s politicians now speak of Patil’s ascent as a symbol of women’s empowerment, there is a certain hollowness to their claims. This, after all, is the state whose politicians seem to spend more time debating a slip-up at a fashion show and the closure of dance bars than the brutal murder and rape of a Dalit woman in Khairlanji. This is also now a state which has just one woman cabinet minister in a 40-member cabinet and where a 288 member state assembly has just 12 women MLAs, well below the national average.
Unfortunately, who cares about these ground realities when a woman from Maharashtra is about to be anointed the country’s first woman Rashtrapati (or patni)?
Perhaps, there are two Maharash-tras: one, a state of intellectual and social ferment, which produced people who lived by the ideals on which modern India was built. The other, a far less noble entity that is provincial, small-minded and no longer produces original thought. I still don’t know which Maharashtra Pratibha tai represents as we still haven’t heard her speak out on any ‘real’ issue. Till one decides, maybe it’s safe to join the chorus and say ‘Jai Maharashtra!’
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, CNN IBN and IBN 7