In Poll Year, Maratha Politics 'Reigns' As Parties Jostle To Bask In The Chhatrapati's Halo


(MENAFN- IANS) Raigad (Maharashtra), March 3 (IANS) Normally occupying the centre-stage in state politics, Maharashtra's prime historic icon Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhosale Maharaj is again in the limelight in 2024 -- for twin reasons.

Firstly, the looming Lok Sabha 2024 elections, followed by the 350th anniversary of the Coronation (June 6, 1674) of the legendary Maratha ruler to be celebrated in a grand manner on June 6 at his awe-inspiring capital, the hilltop Raigad Fort.

The state's politics has largely veered around the Maratha community which is estimated to be at least 28 per cent of the state's 13-crore population, as per the latest (February 2024) report of Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission (MSBCC), and in a position to swing the outcome in some 150-plus (of 288) Assembly seats or 25 (of 48) Lok Sabha constituencies.

Around 10 years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited the Raigad Fort, and in December 2023, he travelled to marvel at the Sindhudurg Fort -- built by the Chhatrapati -- nestling in the Arabian Sea off Sindhudurg district.

The politically significant community has been quietly pampered or wooed in many ways, even the most prominent Maratha, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) President Sharad Pawar decided to take a 'palkhi' (palanquin) to board the rope-car of Raigad Fort last month (February 2024), a first after 40 years.

Pawar, 83, went up the fort to launch his party's new symbol, a 'Trumpeter', with great fanfare before the statue of the Chhatrapati -- and the symbolic gesture did not go unnoticed among the ordinary Marathas.

Acknowledged as a powerful ruling class -- 10 of the state's 18 Chief Ministers have been Marathas, including the current Chief Minister Eknath Shinde -- the community had to struggle hard for reservation in education and jobs.

In the past few years of the quotas' campaign, the government was extremely restrained, handled even the ongoing seven-month-long agitation with kid-gloves, finally bowed to give the 10 per cent quota, and now hopes to reap a rich political harvest in the parliamentary and Assembly elections.

In fact, the Chhatrapati's name is proudly invoked in every political event or speech, his photos/busts are garlanded, Presidents, Prime Ministers or even international dignitaries do not fail to acknowledge his contributions to 'Hindavi Swaraj'.

They eulogise his guerrilla military plus naval strategies and prowess, the scores of monuments he built, especially the imposing hill and sea fortresses constructed in that era, and many other sterling qualities.

Though Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (February 1630-April 1680) died 344 years ago, his presence looms mightily over the state and even national politics, like a warm blanket offering solace to one and all.

"The Chhatrapati was a just ruler, he had the highest regards for all castes or communities of his time... They adored him and he served the masses well. Even after nearly four centuries of his rule, he remains the main source of inspiration for all, the rulers or the masses. He is the soul of the kingdom that he founded," said Shivajirao Katkar, 63, a Maratha who proudly describes himself as 'a student of the glorious history of Maharashra'.

Katkar added that the Chhatrapati's little-known facts include his tolerance for all religions, safeguarding Hindus and Hinduism, had nine Muslim bodyguards and other Muslims in key posts in his defence forces, and all people happily lived and prospered in his reign.

Largely revered as a historical icon later, it was the late Balasaheb Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena (June 19, 1966) in Mumbai, who revived the Great Maratha Chhatrapati's memory at the mass level, probably more than his descendants -- and then all others jumped in the fray.

A sitting Maratha legislator, requesting anonymity, said that most parties prefer to chant the Chhatrapati's name for various political reasons, especially to get a measure of 'credibility and stamp of approval to their cause and ambitions', much like the proverbial 'Midas Touch'.

"The Chhatrapati has an emotional 'connect' with the masses, irrespective of their own backgrounds, they genuinely admire him, his valour, philosophy, teachings, the rich political and military legacy, respect for women and regard for all religions. No political speech is complete without uttering his name," he added.

Inspired by the legend of a milkmaid, Hirkani -- who once got locked inside the Raigad Fort -- but steeled herself to descend a steep hill at the dead of the night to reach her crying, hungry infant awaiting her in the hamlet at the base of the fort -- in 2023 the Maharashtra government started a 'Hirkani Room' in all government offices for women employees to tend to their own kids.

In January 2024, the Centre decided to nominate a dozen forts comprising the Maratha Military Landscapes of India, for the UNESCO World Heritage List (2024-2025), and the move was welcomed by all.

Former President Ram Nath Kovind visited the Raigad Fort (December 2021), and paid respects to the might of the glorious Maratha empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, besides other past Presidents and Prime Ministers plus many other dignitaries have visited the lofty monument.

The state government has been running a series of events-programmes in the run-up to the 350th anniversary of the Chhatrapati's Coronation, which will culminate in a grand finale in June -- after the Lok Sabha elections.

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at ...)

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