Sharad Pawar
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar Image Credit: ANI

In India, Sharad Pawar, 83, the shrewd and silent Maratha leader, is the “Bhisma Pitama” (elder statesman) of Maharashtra politics. Perhaps fittingly, a “Mahabharata” (Great War) has broken out in his family with his nephew — Ajit Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra universally called “dada” — squaring off against the uncle who gave him everything yet wouldn’t let him emerge out of his shadow.

The battleground is Baramati, the Pawar family pocket borough for five decades, which Pawar senior has nursed assiduously and then handed over to his only child, Supriya Sule. But the fight is for Maharashtra, with its 48 Lok Sabha seats, second only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80.

The high-voltage soap opera would give a Bollywood blockbuster a run for its money, except that Bollywood couldn’t imagine this script. As uncle and nephew face off, the surrogates in the fight are Sule and Pawar junior’s wife Sunetra, who is stepping into politics for the first time.

All of Maharashtra is riveted by the tantalising contest between “vehini” (sister-in-law) and “tai,” as Sule is called.

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Evenly matched

So important is Maharashtra to the BJP that former Pawar senior aide and turncoat Praful Patel was handed a clean chit by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to ensure that Sunetra contests and Pawar senior gets tied down in Baramati. Maharashtra is the one state where the opposition and the BJP are evenly matched, despite the BJP splitting two parties, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

A huge groundswell of sympathy exists for Uddhav Thackeray, who now heads a faction of the Sena, as a good man undone by schemers who took away his family legacy. Thackeray’s work as the Chief Minister during the Covid pandemic is also remembered.

Similarly, Pawar is also seen as a patriarch hard done by his own family who turned traitor for ambition. People knowingly refer to the plethora of corruption cases against the opposition which vanish magically when they join the BJP.

Baramati is a constituency where you can see for yourself what magic can be achieved if a people’s representative decides to work hard for her constituency. From growing grapes for wine (in tribute, one grape is named Sharad seedless after Pawar senior) to jobs, Baramati has benefited from being a VVIP constituency.

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The last stand

Sympathy for the old Maratha is deep as Ajit Pawar has suffered an image shrink for betraying his uncle. Wife Sunetra, who is his proxy, is keenly aware of the sentiment and tries to play on the familiar nephew being overlooked for his own flesh and blood child Sule.

Will it work? Maharashtra understands in a visceral way that this is Pawar senior’s last election. The emotion for him runs deep, but underneath is a feeling that the family feud is only for public consumption to protect economic assets by playing both sides, the BJP and the opposition.

Not for nothing is Pawar senior the sphinx of Indian politics known for his sudden political maneuvers. Political watchers say that not even Pawar himself is certain of which alliance he will strike with the only aim of emerging on top in any arrangement. Witness the unlikely alliance he conjured up between Uddhav Thackeray, the Congress, and his own party to take power in Maharashtra.

Yet, Pawar senior will seemingly run out of options if India votes in Modi again for a third term, so he has to safeguard home turf Maharashtra. Pawar senior is giving the battle his all, taking in meetings of how Ajit, who he protected all his life, suddenly stabbed him in the back.

Will the subliminal sympathy for Thackeray and Pawar translate into winning votes, making the BJP, which lacks a grass roots Maharashtra leader, uneasy? The opposition is also pitching strongly the regional card where they say that Gujarat has benefited at the cost of Maharashtra, citing billion-dollar projects which have gone to Gujarat under the current BJP dispensation.

This is a time-worn but strong grudge nursed by Maharashtra and has ensured a lot of success for those who play the son of the soil or regional card. This time the battle is no holds barred and for once the winner will actually have a critical role in the balance of power.