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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Politics and the cult of the Chhatrapati

The iconic status of the Maratha king is such that both the Congress-NCP and the Shiv Sena-BJP are trying to claim his mantle, says Ranjit Hoskote.

This January, when a furore broke out over the American historian, James W. Laine's study of the Maratha ruler and nationalist hero, Shivaji, a publisher associated with the counter-cultural 1960s `Little Magazines' movement said to me: "Aata Shivaji Maharajanna don paay hote asa mhatla tar suddha thaar maarteel tumhala!" (You could be lynched even for innocuously observing that Shivaji had two feet.) The comment underlines the semi-divine status bestowed upon the founder of the Maratha kingdom in contemporary Maharashtra, so that even the mildest critical inquiry into his life is castigated as blasphemy. It also reveals why Maharashtra's major political formations — the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) coalition and the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance — vie with each other to monopolise the cult of the Chhatrapati.

Shivaji, as icon, symbolises the Maharashtrian identity that both the Congress-NCP coalition and the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance claim to defend. Both sides have likewise appropriated Shivaji's kingdom, styled as `Hindavi Swaraj', as their ideal of governance. Although the one-upmanship over who is better imbued with Shivaji-bhakti is an integral feature of Maharashtra's political life, it assumes operatic proportions in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

The latest round began on January 5, when an outfit calling itself the Sambhaji Brigade attacked Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), destroying invaluable books and manuscripts. The group claimed to have acted in Shivaji's name and that of his community, the Marathas. It argued that since BORI scholars had collaborated with Mr. Laine in researching his study, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, they were guilty of impugning Shivaji's honour. Maharashtra's Congress-NCP government arrested 72 Sambhaji Brigade activists after the outrage, but Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde assuaged Maratha sentiment by banning Mr. Laine's book.

With Parliamentary elections round the corner, the Congress-NCP and the Sena-BJP have been slinging the emotive issue of retrospective lese majeste, irreverence towards Shivaji, at each other. . Mid-March has been particularly rich in these exchanges. On March 17, a BJP member's deceptively simple question disrupted the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly: Would the government be lenient with the arrested Sambhaji Brigade activists? In reply, the Home Minister, the NCP's R.R. Patil, chose to take a swipe at the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had deplored the banning of books earlier this year.

An incensed opposition demanded that the reference to Mr. Vajpayee be expunged from the record. The following day, Gopinath Munde, president of the BJP's state unit and former Deputy Chief Minister, called for a ban on Nehru's Discovery of India, which allegedly maligns Shivaji. Mr. Patil retaliated by demanding that Mr. Vajpayee apologise for deploring the ban on the Laine book. Deft as ever, the Prime Minister composed a different raga for his March 20 campaign rally in Beed. From Maharashtra's rural hinterland, with Sena chief Bal Thackeray by his side, he thundered against "foreign authors" who "play with our national pride", asserting that he would act against such adventurers, "should the State Government fail to do so". The irrepressible Mr. Patil re-joined the battle on March 22, announcing that the Maharashtra Government would enlist Interpol's aid to book Mr. Laine!

How does this competitive hero-worship translate into electoral gain? The Congress-NCP coalition hopes to snatch the mantle of Shivaji-bhakti from the Shiv Sena, `Shivaji's Army'; thus, it can play being the authentic custodian of the Maharashtrian identity, while satisfying its traditional power base, the Marathas. Not to be outmanoeuvred, the Sena has opposed the Laine ban; but its tactful expression of sympathy for the Sambhaji Brigade is calculated to make inroads into the Maratha vote. The BJP, for its part, hopes its veneration of Shivaji will dilute its image as a party of northerners. This is a crucial move, given the recent unrest in Maharashtra over the `locals vs. outsiders' issue, when Sena goons roughed up migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

These strident appeals to a collective symbolic imagination could mask anxieties that bear, not only on the Lok Sabha elections, but also the autumn Assembly polls. The Congress-NCP coalition would like to deflect public attention from the Telgi scandal, the exposure of widespread corruption in the Maharashtra police force, and the ignominious exit of Deputy Chief Minister Chagan Bhujbal. The Sena-BJP alliance would like people to forget its botched record of rule in Maharashtra (1995-1999), its capitulation to the same Enron Power Corporation that it had vowed to expel, its bungling of Mumbai's real-estate crisis, and its emptying of Maharashtra's coffers. No wonder everybody in this story loves a good Shivaji.

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