All through my rookie years as a journalist I had the privilege of interacting with awe-inspiring leaders in Maharashtra. Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, Sharad Pawar, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Abdul Rehman Antulay to name a few in the Congress. Hashu Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde from the BJP and, of course, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena. Every one of these leaders made a distinct contribution to the polity, whether positive or negative, and they all changed society in many big and small ways that have left a lasting impression on the people.
So I was struck when a young friend, rather apolitical as some people go, asked me rather casually, “Isn’t there a dearth of good leaders in Maharashtra today?”
When I put that question to senior journalist Kumar Ketkar, he agreed: ``Unfortunately no leader today in any party has a sense of the great history of Maharashtra. It is each for himself and no one for us all.’’
According to Ketkar, the only leader with that sense of history and someone who could still do something to resurrect the state from the quagmire it has sunk into is Shard Pawar. ``But he will not lift a finger to help the state anymore.’’
That is because he is a very bitter man, frustrated by destiny which denied him his ambition of becoming Prime Minister one day. Pawar lost the race to the office in a straight fight with PV Narasimha Rao in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, but after the United Democratic Front experiment of 1996, when HD Deve Gowda became Prime Minister on the strength of just 17 members of parliament, his hopes rose. Of course, he thought he stood a good chance in 1998 when Sonia Gandhi made the faux pas of proclaiming that she had the support of 272 MPs to form the government after the collapse of the IK Gujral-led coalition. Well networked as Pawar is, he could have sewn up a coalition in favour of the Congress. But Sonia did not trust the man and a deeply disappointed Pawar split the party, in the hope he would be able to get his own dozen or so MPs to make a bid for the Prime Minister’s Office.
However, while Pawar was able to sweep elections at the head of the Congress in Maharashtra on his own as Nationalist Congress president, he could win barely half a dozen seats. Then in alliance with the Congress he could never cross the double digit mark. While the Congress graciously accommodated him in the cabinet with more berths than the party deserved in terms of its numbers in the Lok Sabha, they were not significant enough to force a decision in his favour. Even his noises in support of Narendra Modi during the last Lok Sabha polls were with an eye to a bargain post-election but, astute as he is as a politician, even Pawar did not see the landside coming – with just four MPs of his own and more than two-thirds majority to the NDA, Pawar was simply not needed by anybody.
Now Pawar has been `floating’ the trial balloon of a possible presidency but even he knows that will not happen – it is a ruse to keep his rather innocent supporters brimming with hope and tied to his apron strings. Pawar now greatly disappoints by plunging the state into primitive politics based on caste and other divisive considerations even as Maharashtra gets dog-eared at the edges and the polity becomes rather directionless.
Of the leaders after his generation, all are lame ducks. His nephew Ajit Pawar is of no consequence without the uncle; Ashok Chavan of the Congress is mired in allegations of the Adarsh scam and is afraid to take on the current dispensation for fear of being victimised by them. Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP is a known entity only because he is a chief minister and has little to show in terms of bold policies that were the hallmark of Maharashtra governments in the past. Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, at the best of times, is standing on just one leg and Raj Thackeray of the MNS can best be described in terms of the Hindi idiom – neeche gira toh bhi taang upar – that accomplishes nothing.
Who do the people of Maharashtra then look up to?