The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is caught in a storm in Maharashtra, and no one else but it’s own top leaders are to be blamed for this.
But those who understand Maharashtra's politics will know that all of it is intentional— the NCP is trying to consolidate its vote bank. Especially with its own ally, Uddhav Thackeray, eating into the Muslim votes.
The controversy started with Ajit Pawar, who apart from being the leader of the opposition in Maharashtra assembly, is also the second most influential leader in NCP.
Pawar wants that Sambhaji Maharaj (the eldest son of Shivaji Maharaj) be not called Dharmaveer. A lose translation of this word means a warrior who fought for Dharma. Pawar says Sambahji Maharaj was 'Swarajya Rakshak'.
While Ajit Pawar’s controversy was raging, another NCP leader Jitendra Awhad, who represents Mumbra, a Muslim-dominated constituency along with Kalwa in the assembly, stoked another one. Awhad claimed that Aurangzeb wasn’t a Hindu-hating Mughal ruler.
Yes, the same Aurangzeb who has been glorified by Mughal historians as the ruler who destroyed a number of Hindu temples, including the Kashi Vishwanath — according to Awhad, the former minister in Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, didn’t carry any hate for Hindus.
The same Aurangzeb who ordered the killing of Sambhaji Maharaj—who according to numerous sources, chose death over leaving Hinduism—isn’t a Hindu-hater according to Awhad and as per Ajit Pawar Sambhaji Maharaj isn’t a Dharmveer.
While we delve deeper in this issue, we must also remember a few days ago, Awhad was arrested by Thane police for disrupting the screening of Marathi movie Har Har Mahadev, a film depicting the heroic life of Shivaji Maharaj and Maratha warrior, Baji Prabhu Deshpande.
In the past, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar had even targeted late Babasaheb Purandare, a revered historian for his work on Shivaji Maharaj.
So what exactly is it that is leading NCP leaders in making such statements?After all, the Maratha kings targeted by the NCP are not only the idols of the entire state, but also regarded as icons by the Maratha community, which also happens to be the core vote bank of NCP.
The NCP is a rural party, and most of western Maharashtra is dominated by the Marathas and these are seats that NCP wins. Why are they risking all of that?
Why did the NCP also give so much fuel to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which already was under attack — thanks to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s remark on Shivaji Maharaj and also other gaffes by senior BJP leaders?
The BJP has gone all out against Awhad, as well as Ajit Pawar, with Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis clearly stated that both Shivaji Maharaj and Sambhaji Maharaj are indeed Dharmaveers. Had both these Maratha kings not fought the Mughals, Hindus wouldn’t have been left in Maharashtra.
BJP MLA Nitesh Rane, son of Union minister Narayan Rane, has also jumped in and attacked Ajit Pawar.
The controversy is growing with every passing day, instead of dying down. The BJP is leaving no stone unturned to rake it up. Politically, it has every reason to do so, because the issue resonates with its voters — the Hindus.
To answer why NCP’s Ajit Pawar is comfortable calling Sambhaji Maharaj Swarajya Rakshak, but is uncomfortable with Dharmaveer, senior political journalist with Lokmat, Yadu Joshi, says the problem in front of NCP is that Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena has gained popularity amongst the Muslim voters since it broke ties with BJP, and the BJP has gained the confidence of majority of Hindus. While the NCP has its Maratha votes, its major vote share also came from Muslims — and that is the vote slipping away to Uddhav Sena, even as Congress was already in the field to stake its claim on this vote bank.
By using the word Swarajya Rakshak, the party wants to encompass not just Hindus but also Muslims and keep its vote bank intact.
What is worrying the NCP is also that in the rural belt, where NCP has been number one, the BJP gained seats in the recently concluded gram panchayat elections.
This has to unsettle any seasoned politician and that is what has happened here.
In all likelihood the NCP wants to replicate the Samajwadi Party style politics. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP made huge gains because of the 'Muslim-Yadav (MY) politics'. Here the NCP, while keeping its Maratha vote bank intact, wants to add to the Muslim votes or rather keep them with itself, and not let them go to the Uddhav Thackeray Sena.
The BJP knows this well. The saffron party has everything to gain from the controversy, if only if it can take this issue to the rural voters. In rural Maharashtra, leaders of BJP have already started several activities — like Rane distributing stickers that read 'Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj' in Kankavli.
The BJP recently shed the urban-only-party tag, by becoming the largest rural party in the state’s Panchayat polls. The BJP, along with Eknath Shinde’s Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena, has managed to keep Hindu votes intact with them, and polarisation will only help.
The NCP also knows: more the polarisation, the better their chances.
In all this, where is Uddhav Thackeray? Uddhav’s party has maintained a strategic silence. While its leader in the council distanced himself from Ajit Pawar’s statement, they haven’t gone all out against him, which is surprising, because the Shiv in the Shiv Sena stands for Shivaji Maharaj.
The Uddhav Sena is currently watching the game unfold and see which direction it is going in. Same with the Congress — the party has not much to lose with the controversy and hence it has also stayed quiet.
Shivaji Maharaj and Sambhaji Maharaj have a vital role to play in Maharashtra politics and the words 'Dharmaveer' and 'Swarajya Rakshak' will shape the future politics of the state. Both the BJP and NCP don't want to let go.
The NCP is trying a new strategy and the forthcoming elections will show whether the NCP's strategy worked, or failed.
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