This weekend, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar unveiled a statue of Govindrao Adik’s mother at Srirampur in western Maharashtra. Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was present on the occasion, lauded Pawar for being among the few leaders in the country who had a vision and a policy for women.
Shinde was right. On Pawar’s watch in the early 1990s, the Maharashtra government came up with a unique policy which has not been implemented anywhere else in the world let alone the rest of India. Pawar’s women policy had decreed that if more than half the women in any village were troubled by the presence of liquor stores anywhere in their vicinity, they could petition the collector for a referendum and get the stores closed in their villages.
In the past two decades several villages have gone alcohol-free and now the Maharashtra government is extending the policy to some larger townships where women might be similarly troubled by drunken men and liquor dens.
But this is not the sole indicator of Pawar’s progressive thinking. A week before this unveiling ceremony, Pawar and Shinde were together at an event for Dalits in Vidarbha, which has the largest Dalit population in the state. Shinde, himself a Dalit, made an impassioned appeal to the people that the fact that Dalits were regarded as ‘untouchables’ in the past should have no bearing on their self-respect. This was received with thunderous applause.
However, it was Pawar who stole the limelight when he expressed disagreement with Shinde. Pawar asked why should the word ‘untouchables’ be introduced at all into the discourse about the Dalit community. “Nobody is an untouchable, just that some are more unfortunate than others,” he said. “And it is the duty of every citizen of the country to ensure that those who had been traditionally more unfortunate than them get a fair deal.”
Shinde, of course, nodded in acquiescence. This, of course, was more than the bemused reaction of Manohar Joshi, the then leader of the Opposition from the Shiv Sena, who in 1990 at a public function promised Pawar, who had just returned again as chief minister, all his cooperation in governing the state.
“Whenever there are riots or atrocities against Muslims or Dalits, we shall go together to offer solace to the victims,” he avowed. But Pawar snapped back, “There should never be an opportunity arising for us to travel together. Why should there be riots or atrocities at all? The effort instead should always be to strive to create an atmosphere where no one will be compelled to riot or behave badly towards any community.”
Joshi’s offer had been well-meaning but even then I had thought that Pawar was a leader ahead of his times. But then certain manipulations and the overwhelming ambition to become prime minister was yet to make a public appearance.
It is such ambition, the need to always take charge and be in control of other people’s lives and careers that prevent fate from marking Pawar out as a visionary in the mould of other greater leaders of the Independence era who gave women equal rights, fought against untouchability or even came down heavily on the disruptive elements of society who would rend the fabric of India that was so painstakingly woven together by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel or even Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Pawar desperately wanted to be prime minister in 1991 but I was surprised when even that ambition proved too little to keep him away from his home turf. It was this need for control that brought him back to Maharashtra as chief minister a couple of years later.
Quite like becoming the president of the Mumbai Cricket Association after being the president of the International Cricket Council, I would think. Pawar could never take a giant leap — a leap towards the PMO again after that comedown. I wonder if he will do better on the cricketing green.