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Why Maharashtra is going back into the 18th century

By T V R Shenoy
September 24, 2009 14:59 IST
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No state, barring Uttar Pradesh, elects more MPs to the Lok Sabha than does Maharashtra. It is part of the industrial heartland of India, and Mumbai is undoubtedly the country's financial and commercial headquarters. Yet there is little or no excitement in the air though the last date for filing nominations to the Vidhan Sabha is Friday, September 25.

This is more than a little weird. Despite its size, population, and resources, Maharashtra is not particularly well governed. The state has the unhappy distinction of having the largest number of farmer suicides, leaving Andhra Pradesh in its dust. Food production has been falling steadily for two years -- and we don't yet have the figures for the current drought year.

So much for rural Maharashtra, what of the cities? The grim fact is that in the past two years twenty lakh (two million) workers have lost their jobs -- and those are just the statistics that the state government itself has disclosed. Yet desperate Indians from elsewhere in the country continue to pour into the state. How is Maharashtra going to cope with all those hungry mouths?

Yet nobody -- in any party -- seems interested in debating such questions. But why should they? Apathy reigns supreme in a majority that lives from day to day, and educated professionals appear happier to withdraw just a bit farther from politics each day. The middle class came out in numbers to wave candles and play guitars at the Gateway of India immediately after the November 26 attacks, yet fewer than half of them came to vote in the general election six months later.

The controversy over the proposed statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the sea off Mumbai is a classic instance of how the middle class proposes to handle things. It wants to sign petitions, perhaps even appeal to the courts, but nobody wants to take on the politicians in the political arena.

With the poor apathetic and the middle class unconcerned, the political class is free to do pretty much what it wants. And what it desires, judging by the evidence, is to take Maharashtra back into the eighteenth century. That, as you may remember, was when feuding chieftains rated their petty dynastic concerns higher than those of the state, leave alone the nation.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is quick enough to mock the ruling coalition for 'dynastic' politics. That is true enough of course. The sitting chief minister, Ashok Chavan, is the son of a former Congress chief minister. And the current Congress candidate for the Amravati assembly seat, Rajendra Shekhawat, is the son of the President of India.

As for its coalition partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, Maharashtra's Water Resources Minister, Ajit Pawar, is the nephew of NCP boss Sharad Pawar. The family patriarch's daughter, Supriya Sule, already sits in the Lok Sabha. This list could go on, but you get the general picture.

But is the BJP any better? One joke doing the rounds in Maharashtra has it that the 'BJP' stands for 'Bachha Janata Party'. That is thanks to the manner in which Gopinath Munde has been distributing tickets to the children in the family.

The BJP is contesting 119 seats. (The Shiv Sena -- which has its own dynastic problems -- is fighting the other 169.) Three -- possibly four -- of the BJP candidates are related to the senior BJP leader.

Pankaja Munde Palave, Gopinath Munde's daughter, is the party candidate from Parli.

Pankaja's cousin, Poonam Mahajan Rao, has the party ticket for Ghatkopar (West). Poonam's father was the late BJP leader, Pramod Mahajan; Gopinath Munde's wife, Pradnya, was Pramod Mahajan's younger sister.

Madhusudan Kendre, son-in-law of Gopinath Munde's older brother, Pandit Anna Munde, is the BJP candidate from Gangakhed.

That adds up to three tickets for a single, closely-knit family -- possibly four if the rumours are true that the ticket for Renapur shall fall to Gopinath Munde's nephew, Dhananjay.

This by the way is not the first time that the last named man has made the news. In 2002 media reports revealed that petrol pump allotments had been made thanks to political wire-pulling; Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered these cancelled. One of the beneficiaries was Dhananjay Munde, who was given a petrol pump in Shirur, in Beed district.

The BJP can talk as much as it likes about the 'dynastic politics' practised by the Congress; in Maharashtra at any rate it has lost the moral high ground. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it has jumped off the high ground!)

What happens if a voter doesn't want to cast a ballot for either the Congress-NCP or the BJP-Shiv Sena? Technically, there is something called the 'Republican Left Democratic Front' but it seems to be a non-starter. It consists of the CPI-M, the CPI, the Peasants & Workers Party, the Lok Janshakti Party (Ramvilas Paswan), the Samajwadi Party, and no fewer than fifteen factions of the Republican Party.

(Keralites who think the Kerala Congress is riven by factionalism should just take a look at the Republican Party of India! The only faction that has refused to join the grand reunion of the Republican Party is the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangha -- led by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the late great Dr B R Ambedkar.)

I am not quite sure how many parties there are in this coalition given all the factions and sub-factions. But does it matter? The parties announced their decision to form a coalition in the last days of August; they started squabbling in the second week of September, just one day after releasing their joint manifesto.

Family and faction proved the bane of the great Maratha confederacy in the eighteenth century. Given its size and wealth in human resources, the state should be setting the pace for twenty-first century India; instead it is falling behind every day -- and its leaders apparently could not care less.

I have no idea which coalition -- if any -- shall form the next ministry in Mumbai come October. But does it make a difference? They all seem equally unconcerned with governance.

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T V R Shenoy