Chennai: Is the Shiv Sena, which is now calling the shots for the BJP in Maharashtra, typically structured like a traditional Army where “you fail if you score more than seven out of ten?” “Because no Army top brass wants any soldier to ask him hard questions or challenge his authority,” that one might have to consciously play the dud even if one has the confidence to score eight-upon-ten.
Such questions in the contemporary Indian political context are as difficult to ask, as they are to answer. Veteran Mumbai-based versatile writer and veteran journalist Sujata Anandan’s ‘Maharashtra Maximus, The State, Its People and Politics’, is a wonderfully researched tract, delineating the presuppositions of this seven-upon-ten dilemmas in modern Maharashtra politics.
Political drama, sociology and contemporary history, all fuse and deconstruct themselves at appropriate stages as Sujata unravels the political turboprops of one India’s largest states that has been one of India’s most progressive states, nurturing reformist ideas, besides great leaders from Jyothibhai Phule, Tilak to Ambedkar. Maharashtra was on par with Bengal in its intellectual vigour, though as the author alludes, when it came to “protecting its territory”, the narrative of inclusive, cosmopolitan self-rule that Chatrapathi Shivaji left behind in shaping the ‘Maratha consciousness’, was conspicuous by its absence in the post 18th century Bengal, even if the East produced a Subhas Chandra Bose later.
Such, inferential comparative notes apart, Sujata’s book, written in crystal clear, analytical style and remarkably infused with a range of voices from serious scholars/university professors, political analysts to the big actors themselves, whom she observed from close quarters as a political journalist for decades, comes as a very important contribution to understanding the society and political churnings of Maharashtra. It is a space much more than Bombay or Mumbai still continuing to be the ‘Gateway of India’, for thousands who still want to find a job. As the legend goes, Mumbadevi never turns away anyone, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, though the more recent Shiv Sena-BJP reading of it in the backdrop of ‘Hindutva’ political ideology has been unfortunately too narrow.
The making of the State of Maharashtra, from the earlier Bombay Presidency in post-Independent India, came in two phases; first during the linguistic reorganization of States in 1956 and the latter phase in 1960 when the conflict between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians on the “future of the commercial capital of Bombay” accentuated. This has been very sensitively, yet candidly retold by the author. “Morarji Desai was the Chief Minister of Bombay State in the years when the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (SMM) took root and his superior attitude (as a Gujarati) towards Maharashtrians may have helped to cede Bombay to Maharashtra,” writes the author.
The turning point in that agitation came when Mr. Desai ordered police to fire on a protesting mob at Flora Fountain, “which resulted in the martyring of 106 protesters, a fact that has not yet been forgotten by the local populace.” “Perhaps if Desai had refrained from firing on the protesters, Bombay may have continued as a bilingual state, or even ended up as the capital of Gujarat, as the influencers were stronger on the Gujarati side than among the Maharashtrian leaders,” as Sujata puts it. As the agitation intensified in all the three regions of the Marathi-speaking people including Marathwada, “Yashwantrao Chavan, one of the tallest leaders of the time, who was being projected as a reincarnation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, ultimately prevailed upon Nehru to cede Bombay to Maharashtra,” notes the author.
Sujata makes an insightful point that had it not been for the then Maharashtra Congress party leaders, “covertly encouraging a regional force”, after the State’s reorganisation, when they discovered they “did not have a voice in New Delhi”, Bal Thackery and his Shiv Sena would not have grown despite its narrow base initially confined to Bombay-Thane municipal areas. That Shiv Sena later got a toehold in the Konkan region and in Vidharbha and Marathwada is another story.
What is even more significant about Sujata Anandan’s book is that it has dwelt in some detail about socio-political and economic institutional underpinnings of each region that is part of the mosaic of modern Maharashtra; besides Bombay, from the initially cotton-growing western Maharashtra and Vidharbha, Marathwada and Konkan regions, to drive home how the political power-play is aligned to the economic realities, the productivity profile and the commercial muscle.
Primarily three crops dominated across these regions – cotton, sugarcane and onions, while horticultural crops flourished in Konkan belt even if it was turned into a ‘chemical belt’ later.
In Vidarbha, the black soil in particular was so conducive for the growth of cotton that when the Britishers settled the cotton farmers in Vidarbha to feed the textile mills in old Bombay, it “even led to a change in the political economy of Maharashtra,” writes the author.
Another vital factor has been the cooperative movement and the network of cooperative banks capped by an apex bank, for which Maharashtra has been famous for. Thus, the control of the cooperatives, which financed the sugarcane farmers and the sugar mills, was one of the key levers of ‘cadre building’ and patronage for political parties in Maharashtra, whether it was the Congress or later the NCP, when the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar quit the Congress over Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue in the late 1990s’, to form the NCP. He still continues to be a major force both in Maharasthra and national politics, despite the setbacks suffered by the Congress-NCP combine since 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
In cutting through the maze of these complex developments, Sujata Anandan has coherently weaved in the linkages between geography, climate factors, economic activities and forces of productivity with the linguistic and other cultural factors in explaining how each region has thrown up the leaders it has and how they have shaped the politics of Maharashtra. And presently, for the first time ever, the state has a Brahmin Chief Minister in Mr. Fadnavis, significantly hailing from an urbanised elite community and with roots in Nagpur, the RSS’ citadel. The author sociologically explains how Mr. Fadnavis and Mr. Nitin Gadkari, are now the two tallest leaders of Maharashtra BJP, even if they have no Modi-like profile.
The author’s reflections on the future of Maharashtra’s politics are equally insightful. They show how the two ruling parties –BJP-Shiv Sena, though arithmetically stable, are “so disconnected from the masses”.
Tamil Nadu politics is today similar, with BJP cosying up to the ruling AIADMK. The author does not say that in so many words, but alludes to how Sharad Pawar’s unique liquor policy, that empowered rural Maharashtra women to close down liquor shops wherever “trouble by drunken husbands was more than 25 per cent”, may have a lesson or two for Tamil Nadu in tackling the prohibition issue.