International women’s day: The women in Maharashtra’s politics
While Maharashtra has never had a woman in the chair of the chief minister, or handling top portfolios in the state cabinet, on the occasion of Women’s Day, HT takes a look at three women who are playing a key role in Maharashtra’s politics, and are likely to substantially influence the state’s political landscape – Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Member of Parliament Supriya Sule; Rashmi Thackeray, the chief editor of Saamana, mouthpiece of Maharashtra’s ruling party Shiv Sena; and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national secretary and former state minister Pankaja Munde.
Among the things that stood out during the formation of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government was the role played by Supriya Sule, daughter of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. From crisis management for her father, after her cousin and senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar tried to split the party to form a government with the BJP, to advising the party top brass on picking ministers, Sule remained instrumental in decision-making. She also did her bit in getting her cousin back to the party; leaders say they share cordial relations despite the talk of tussle for the position of senior Pawar’s political heir. In the year after the formation of the government, she has been constantly travelling in the state to strengthen the party and also connect with the people.
Hemant Desai, a senior political analyst, said, “Sule is an intelligent leader with a sharp political acumen. She has been instrumental in strengthening the NCP’s social media presence.” Her independent work with women’s self-help groups or the issues she picks up in Parliament, such as triple talaq, are notable, according to Desai.
Following the attempted political coup within the NCP in November 2019, Pawar is trusting his daughter to play a much bigger political role, making her a very influential leader.
While taking oath as an MLA, then 29-year-old Aaditya Thackeray introduced himself as ‘Aaditya Rashmi Uddhav Thackeray’, not only a sign of his mother’s role in his life, but also an indicator of her influence within the Shiv Sena. Rashmi, the wife of chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, is considered a friend and confidante by many Sena leaders. “We all go to her for advice. Her opinion is sought during all key or critical political decisions,” a senior Sena leader said.
She took over as the chief editor of the party mouthpiece Saamana in May 2020, a sign that a member of the Thackeray family will continue to hold such a key position.
Rashmi has stayed out of public glare. However, she has been Uddhav Thackeray’s most trusted adviser. According to Sena insiders HT spoke to, she played a key role in the Sena’s decision to break ties with the BJP and join hands with the Congress-NCP, when it became clear that the BJP would not concede chief ministership to the Sena, after the erstwhile alliance won the 2019 Assembly elections.
When Sena leaders were housed in a hotel before the MVA was formed, after the 2019 Assembly elections, Rashmi is said to have visited them to continue building morale, and ensure they remain with the party. A senior Sena leader said, “Rashmi Thackeray or ‘vahini’, as she is referred to, keenly follows all political developments, has an opinion on them. She shares her opinion with us. She has worked very closely with the women’s wing of the Sena.”
Manisha Kayande, Shiv Sena MLA, said, “She is carrying forward the legacy of her mother-in-law, Meena tai, who worked behind-the-scenes.”
Pratap Asbe, another analyst, said, “She has a strong hold on the party. She may not be a mass leader, and is not in the rank and file of Shiv Sena, but she has influence on the first and second rank of Shiv Sena leaders.”
The Thackerays were never directly in power until Aaditya contested and won his first election in 2019, and Thackeray took oath as the CM. “Rashmi Thackeray seems to have been instrumental in encouraging Thackeray to be the CM,” Asbe said.
Sena leaders say she played a role in the entry of Aaditya Thackeray into politics. Aaditya is now a state minister and being seen as the undisputed political heir to his father.
Pankaja Munde’s test of leadership was after the death of her father Gopinath Munde in 2014. She not only handled an unruly crowd of emotional supporters at the time of the funeral, but also managed to keep her flock together, even as things were not favourable for her within the party. A good orator with organisational skills, she has taken up the role of the BJP’s Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader, which also serves her support base, just like her father. Never hiding her ambition to be the CM, she survived allegations of corruption and a serious political setback when her cousin Dhananjay defeated her in the 2019 elections from the constituency she won since 2009.
While there were speculations that she may join the Shiv Sena or NCP, Pankaja Munde stayed put. Recently, she was appointed the vice-president in party’s national executive and also given the responsibility to handle party organisation in Madhya Pradesh. She will now have direct access to the party top brass in Delhi.
He said, “Her entire tenure between 2014 and 2019 was eaten up in infighting and a power struggle. ...Even her father had lost elections, but he stood like a rock afterwards.”
Hemant Desai said, “Pankaja climbed up the ladder very quickly after her father’s demise. Despite losing the Assembly elections, she has managed to retain support from her voters in Marathwada and her relevance in the party.”
Namita Mundada, BJP MLA from Beed, said, “The changes she has brought in have made it easier for women politicians like me to work in the district.”