How do political elites maintain power over a long period of time? And, under what conditions do they lose power? The popularity of a politician alone can take you only so far. Power elites in rural India often operate like a cartel – a well-oiled-machinery maintained by few powerful elites, who are generally from dominant castes, tend to keep political offices (across various levels) within the family, collude with bureaucratic agents, and oversee a large patronage network that has links with criminal entrepreneurs, contractors, and brokers.
Anyone who has travelled across rural Maharashtra, or any other part in India, and interacted with local elites would very quickly piece together a story of how modern-day political empires are created and operate in electoral democracies.
Political scientist Donald Rosenthal, in a 1977 influential study of Kolhapur and Pune districts in Maharashtra, showed in great detail that a relatively small segment, which he called “the expansive elite”, made disproportionate gains from critical state policies in areas of agricultural investment, educational opportunity, and rural local government. These elites (mostly from relatively well-off Maratha caste) had taken control of the local Congress party organisation, the district Land Development Bank, and a variety of other agricultural credit societies and cooperative organisations.
Not much has changed in the four decades since Rosenthal’s study. This intricate network of family members occupying important positions in Maharashtra’s rural political economy still forms the backbone of Maratha dominance in state politics. For many decades now, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar’s family has presided over this vast, byzantine network of local elite collusion across rural Maharashtra, creating a political equivalent of the gilded age, consisting of political barons and impenetrable areas of influence. The family slowly moved to the top of this network. Pawar’s father was instrumental in setting up of cooperative sugar mills in Baramati region and his mother was elected to district local board in pre-Independence India.
Many politicians in Maharashtra have direct affiliations with these cooperatives. In the years after Independence, most of these were controlled by the Congress party. After the split in the Congress party led by Pawar in 1999, most local satraps controlling these cooperatives sided with Pawar’s NCP. It is a no brainer that when Sharad Pawar was appointed as the agriculture minister in 2004, he chose to continue in the same portfolio for an uninterrupted 10 years. It rarely happens in India’s cabinet.
Attacking the base
This dominance of the Pawar family is now under severe threat. So is the old politics of nexus and nepotism. On Monday, Maharashtra would decide the fate of Pawar family’s shrinking base in the state’s electoral politics. Sharad Pawar, who for the most part of the previous decade harboured the ambition of occupying the top slot in Delhi and remained a crucial power player in state politics, is fighting a lone battle in this election to save his family bastion in and around Baramati. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first term, kept showering soft praises on Pawar, calling him his guru who “held my hand and taught me to walk in my early days in Gujarat”, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis worked behind the scenes to undercut Pawar family’s hold on Maharashtra politics. But in reality, it went beyond just defeating Pawar electorally. It meant dismantling piece by piece these vast empires of patronage resources that Pawar had built over time.
What was the modus operandi to dismantle Pawar’s power base? Devendra Fadnavis adopted a two-pronged strategy to break the NCP-Congress hold over the sugar and milk cooperatives, local bodies, and cooperative banks in rural Maharashtra.
First, the BJP-Shiv Sena government amended the Maharashtra Cooperative Societies Act in January 2016 to appoint independent experts to the boards of all cooperative bodies in the state. This opened up space for the BJP to push in people closer to the party. It also issued a directive barring all board directors from recontesting for at least two terms if their cooperative bank is facing inquiries over financial irregularities and administrative mismanagement.
Similarly, to break NCP chief’s nephew Ajit Pawar’s control over irrigation contractor lobby, the Fadnavis government combined several pre-existing water conservation schemes and launched Jalyukta Shivar to be implemented with people’s participation. The nature of this programme bypasses the lobby of irrigation contractors.
Furthermore, the Enforcement Directorate (ED)’s investigation into the financial mismanagement in Maharashtra State Cooperative (MSC) Bank during the previous regime and cases against members of Pawar family and 71 bank directors has sent clear signals behind the intention of the BJP government.
Second, this crackdown against the Pawar family was enough to create unease among many Congress-NCP politicians who feared a similar hunt-down. Most politicians who have defected from the Congress and the NCP have deep stakes in these cooperative bodies. The declining value of contesting on the Congress-NCP ticket further added to the anxieties among these politicians and brought many of these local satraps in the BJP-Shiv Sena fold.
Power politics is a zero-sum game. The end of an old elite is often followed by a new elite, sometimes deploying very similar methods to consolidate power. It is not clear whether the old nexus too will be replaced by a new one or the rot in Maharashtra’s cooperative bodies would get cleaned under BJP-Sena’s second term. The unabashed ambition of Devendra Fadnavis to create his own power base in Maharashtra has set the stage for the rise of a new power elite who is likely to lay claim on the Delhi seat in the post-Modi BJP.
The author is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi. Views are personal.