Sugar power

Apr 19th, 2009 | By editor | Category: ELECTIONS 2009

Meena Menon

It’s in Baramati that you can get a sense of the power play of the Marathas. Six-time MP and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has transformed a drought-hit region into a successful educational and cooperative sugar and dairy production hub.

The 12 Lok Sabha constituencies of western Maharashtra, including Baramati, along with the eight seats in Marathwada, form the citadel of the dominant Maratha caste. In 2004, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine fared the best in western Maharashtra winning nine of the 12 seats, while losing heavily in Vidarbha and Marathwada. In a paper titled “Maharashtra: Virtual reservation for Marathas,” in August 2003, Rajendra Vora says there appears to be an effective and de facto reservation for the Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster in the legislature of Maharashtra. With 31 per cent of the population, the Marathas have been able to control 50 per cent of the seats in the Legislative Assembly.

In the Lok Sabha too, the Marathas hold on to their base zealously and this time the NCP, predominantly seen as a Maratha party, has given tickets to two candidates of royal lineage — Sambhaji Raje in Kolhapur, and the 13th descendant of Shivaji Maharaj, Udayan Raje Bhosale from Satara. Barring a few, the rest of the 22 candidates fielded by the NCP are Marathas.

A neat grassroots network of cooperative sugar factories, educational complexes and dairy cooperatives form the bedrock of Maratha dominance. Power has literally flowed from sugar in the State. When Vitthalrao Vikhe Patil in 1950 set up Asia’s first cooperative sugar factory in Loni, Ahmednagar district, it was a precursor of bigger things. “From the village level to the taluka and district level the linkages are worked out up to Ministry level. The control over the government in turn gives them power to divert resources to these cooperatives, canalise water to their farms, and other benefits,” says Mr. Vora.

This can be seen even in the current State government, where irrigation, water, power and public works are all with the NCP.

While sugar cooperatives are doing well in the Pune region, they are sick in some other parts of the State. And, even if some sugar factories are flagging, the Marathas have developed new bases of dominance in the form of educational institutions, dairy production, and high tech complexes, for example, the Warana complex in Kolhapur headed by State Minister Vinay Kore.

The powerful Maratha network will always be kept intact, points out Nitin Birmal, of the University of Pune’s department of political science. Aiming for the Prime Minister’s job, NCP president Sharad Pawar has been mobilising the Maratha vote and the demand for reservation for Marathas has come mainly from his party. He is also conscious of the social inequalities in his community and tries to represent the rich and powerful as well as the ordinary people.

Mr. Birmal says that the Marathas also have a nexus with the other backward classes (OBC) like the Agri community; Sanjeev Naik has been fielded from Thane. His father Ganesh Naik, of the NCP, is Minister for Environment in the State Cabinet. In Nashik, Sameer Bhujbal, the nephew of Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal has been given a ticket. Mr. Bhujbal is a well-known leader of the OBCs and hails from the Mali community.

Politics can’t be separated from the Marathas in this State. As Vora points out, “The combination of a feudal obsession with power and authority and the modern way of taking politics as a career is the hallmark of the new generation of Maratha politicians.”

Accordingly, this election has seen the expansion of the NCP’s base into urban areas where it already has a network. The political strategies are woven around that new power base, says Mr. Birmal. This new breed of politician, some of them non-Maratha, yet allied to the community, consists of contractors, land dealers or investors in the service sector.

Due to the fragmentation of the vote, competition has made local contests very keen. The Congress has not done much to draw support from the poorer classes, but the NCP has; its strategy aimed at drawing poor and backward sections together seems to be inherited in some ways from Y. B. Chavan, Mr. Pawar’s mentor, who rose to become Deputy Prime Minister.

Rajeshri Deshpande, also of the Department of Political Science, University of Pune, is however sceptical of a grand alliance of Maratha voters. She says all parties have been trying to attract the Maratha vote since 1999. This election will be a test of this strategy.

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