Maharashtra's privatisation of the public realm

 Considered the fortress of the Maharashtrian middle class, once famous for the assembly line of cricketers thrown up by the neighbourhood, it is now symbolic of the deeply fragmented polity of the state. Contesting in the state Assembly elections here is a popular regional television star who has just joined the Shiv Sena against a ‘defector’ who switched overnight to the Congress from the Sena and was ‘rewarded’ with a ticket. Also in the fray is the X factor of  the Maharashtra elections, a candidate from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Three Shiv Sainiks in direct conflict in a constituency which the Sena hasn’t lost in over 20 years: can there be a better example of how Bal Thackeray’s legacy is now splintered?
The predicament of the Shiv Sena mirrors that confronting all the state’s major political parties. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party is facing a serious rebellion from within in its own bastion of western Maharashtra. A weakened Pawar has even used the gambit of threatening ‘retirement’ from politics, but even that has had limited impact on his followers. The BJP too, is badly factionalised, with no centralising force holding the party together. The Congress’ plight is typified by the constituency of Amravati where the son of the President of India has been rather embarrassingly given a ticket at the expense of a sitting minister. A large section of the local unit is refusing to campaign for the party and choosing instead to support the rebel candidate. As for the so-called third front, it’s just a bhel puri of parties who will be available to the highest bidder should there be a hung Assembly.

Why has a state which was once acknowledged to be the most stable in the country suddenly become a recipe for political chaos? Till 1995, Maharashtra had seen almost uninterrupted Congress rule. There was only one brief interlude in 1978 when Pawar broke away from the parent party to form an alliance government. That government too was essentially an offshoot of the Congress and barely lasted a year. Politics in Maharashtra was essentially the preserve of the Congress’ Maratha leadership, and there was little real challenge to this dominant party system.
That position of the Congress was only seriously challenged in the early 1990s. The coming together of the BJP and the Shiv Sena created the basis for an alternate political force. The total mishandling of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots gave the saffron alliance the opportunity it was so desperately looking for. Riding on the crest of a Hindutva mini-wave, the saffron alliance was able to slink into power in 1995 for the first time with the help of  independents. But the alliance’s social base was limited, and it’s no surprise when four years later the Congress and the NCP forged another coalition government, only to be emasculated by pressures from within.

In an era of powerful chief ministers as CEOs, it should then come as no surprise that Maharashtra is beginning to lag behind ‘single window’ states like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. A once power surplus state today faces load shedding of 10 to 12 hours in rural areas and 3 to 6 hours in urban pockets every day. A state which prided itself on its agrarian revolution has seen more than 40,000 farmer suicides since 1995. Even without a drought, food production has fallen by 24 per cent in 2008-09. While the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik ‘golden corridor’ still is an industrial powerhouse, the per capita incomes in Marathwada and Vidarbha are comparable to the ‘Bimaru’ states of  north India.

Unfortunately, instead of  recognising the magnitude of the crisis that confronts the state, Maharashtra’s politicians have become increasingly disconnected from the masses. Each political party has become the private property of a handful of families, with little space for any new entrant. Maharashtra today mirrors the most pressing problem in politics today: the growing ‘privatisation’ of  the public realm. Every resource in the state is today monopolised by the political dynasties: be it education, real estate, agro industries. The candidate lists of the major parties reflect this desire to ensure that the monopoly is not broken: it’s not just the fact that most senior politicians have ensured tickets for their family members, but also the strong presence of the cash rich builder-capitation fee college lobby that confirms how personal wealth is now the only barometer for climbing up the political ladder.

In a sense, the fact that every political party is facing a rebellion from within may even have a positive spin to it: it shows there is at least some resistance to the status quo. A Kalavati may have backed down from contesting the elections in the end, but the very fact that a farm widow could be propped up by a group agitating for farmers’ rights should serve as a wake up call to those who have completely blanked out the state’s poor from their minds. Maybe, a robust civil society will eventually force an ideologically bankrupt political class to get its act together.
PS: To those who would like to know who is winning Maharashtra, here’s my ‘safe’ answer: whoever wins, the state seems doomed to losing out.
(The writer is the Editor in Chief, CNN-IBN Network)

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