Some years ago as Kolhapur’s leading Marathi daily, Pudhari, was attempting to make inroads into Pune, it ran into some fierce resistance by the Sharad Pawar-family-owned Sakal group of newspapers. Pudhari’s young owner-editor, Yogesh Jadhav, had then told me rather wryly, “When we were in school, the history books told us that Pune had once upon a time belonged to the Peshwas. Now our children will grow up thinking Pune is owned by the Pawars!’’
But it is not just Pune that the Pawars have treated as their fiefdom. For almost four decades, ever since Pawar became the chief minister of the state for the first time in 1978, he has retained strict control over the reins of governments and bureaucracy with a footprint all across Maharashtra. No one who has not had Pawar’s blessings has been able to last very long. The best example of this is former chief minister AR Antulay who was deliberately tripped up by Pawar for doing with his cement quotas exactly what Pawar and his cohorts were doing with sugarcane vis-à-vis farmers - Antulay would not release cement to builders unless they donated to his trust; the sugar barons, including Pawar, would not crush the cane of the poor farmers unless they voted for their benefactors in large numbers.
Even during the first Shiv Sena-BJP regime between 1995-99, it was amply clear how then chief minister Manohar Joshi felt obliged to Pawar enough to call him up after seeming to indict Pawar over his alleged (non)involvement in the 1992-93 riots and apologise for the lie. “My leader wanted me to implicate you,’’ he told Pawar contritely. Pawar made that conversation public and that drove a permanent wedge between Joshi and Bal Thackeray – the cracks in that relationship could never be mended.
The fact that the then Sena-BJP regime deferred more to Pawar than to Bal Thackeray was made very obvious to me when I was interviewing Pawar at his Breach Candy residence sometime during 2001. A top Sena leader walked in on the interview and Pawar made no bones about mediating for him with the government. When I expressed surprise that Sena leaders should come to him for intervention rather than to Thackeray, a flattered Pawar said, “Not just now. They used to come to me even when the Sena was in government.’’
But I guess that is now no longer the case. For the first time in four decades, Pawar’s control over government is slipping and his desperation is showing. For a leader who prides himself on his socialism and one who took some bold decisions during his terms as chief minister – like renaming the Marathwada university after Dr BR Ambedkar, despite upper caste opposition to the move – Pawar has been sounding rather petty and casteist for a while now. In the run up to the 2014 assembly elections when it became obvious that either Devendra Fadnavis or Nitin Gadkari would be chief minister, he tried to pit Marathas against Brahmins by asking if they wanted a return to the Peshwai. That was a reference to the resentment Marathas have always had against the Peshwas who were Chitpavan Brahmins and essentially Prime Ministers to Chhatrapati Shivaji’s descendants but who were actually the de facto rulers of the state with only a token deference to the Maratha kings. That is why Marathas chose Mahatma Gandhi over Lokmanya Tilak during the freedom struggle, uneasy as they were over the latter’s conflicts with Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur.
Now Shahu’s descendant, Sambhaji Raje, has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President of India and Pawar is at it again. The piquancy of the situation lies in the fact that Sambhaji had contested – and lost - the Kolhapur seat on a NCP ticket in 2009 but since then has drifted away from Pawar and become the face of the Maratha movement for reservations.
Reacting to the move, Pawar said, “Once upon a time, the Peshwas were appointed by the Chhatrapati. But now a Fadnavis (which is what the ministers in the Peshwai were referred to as) is appointing a Chhatrapati.’’
It is telling that the Maratha masses were not stirred into injured pride as Pawar had hoped. For even this core constituency has begun to look upon him and the rural elite he represents with suspicion. Maharashtra is now simply tired of the Pawars. Fresh blood -- and faces – are called for.