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|September 10, 1999||
The Rediff Election Special/ Pankaj Upadhyaya
Politics divides the Satara royal family like nothing before
Satara, located deep into the heart of Western Maharashtra's famed sugar belt, is a town divided today. Two members of the town's royal family -- both direct descendents of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj -- are contesting for the assembly here, and the Satarkars can elect only one of them.
The predominant feeling in Satara is that this clash was avoidable. Both Chhatrapati Udayanraje Bhosale (Bharatiya Janata Party) and his uncle Chhatrapati Abhaysingraje Bhosale (Nationalist Congress Party) had the option of contesting the Lok Sabha seat. Despite Abhaysingraje being the sitting MP, both preferred the assembly seat, setting the stage for a 'battle royale', an event that the residents of this sleepy town are growing increasingly tired of.
Though there hasn't been any mud-slinging from either side, electing one of the two Maharajs is a strain enough for Satarkars, who hold the royal family in high esteem. The respect is evident everywhere. People still refer to them as Maharaj and do not take a seat in the presence of the royal descendant without his/her approval -- a tiny nod discernible to only Satarkars. In a world where royals have succumbed to the pressures of modern living, the Bhosales have been able to preserve the charisma.
The royal family's first tentative step into electoral politics came when Chhatrapati Pratapsingraje alias Dada Maharaj decided to contest for the presidentship of the Satara Municipal Corporation in 1974. Quite expectedly, it was a cakewalk for him.
Then came the Emergency, which brought Opposition leaders in the district under the Janata Party banner. In the election that followed, the Congress declared the candidature of Baburao Ghorpade, a senior and respected leader. However, the Opposition parties found there was no candidate who could face Ghorpade and his party's mass appeal. Naturally, they turned to the royal family and requested Rajmata Sumitraraje Bhosale and her son Dada Maharaj to let Abhayraje (Dada Maharaj's nephew) contest the elections.
The royal duo agreed and Abhaysingraje accepted the offer reluctantly. A united Opposition, anti-Emergency sentiments and the Satarkars' loyalty to the royal family ensured a comfortable victory for him. Later, he went on to join the Congress and won a string of elections. He also handled various portfolios as a minister in the S B Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, A R Antulay and Sharad Pawar cabinets.
While there was no challenge to Abhaysingraje for many years, the first hint of a division in the family came in 1990 when Udayanraje's mother and Dada Maharaj's wife. Kalpanaraje Bhosale joined the Shiv Sena and fought against Abhaysingraje. But, by this time Abhaysingraje had firmly entrenched himself in the constituency through a network of co-operative institutions. Kalpanaraje lost by 26,000 votes.
In 1995 Abhaysingraje won the assembly election without any opposition from within the family and in 1996 Udayanraje fought as an Independent against current Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Prataprao Bhosale and lost.
But this respite from 'royal battles' was short-lived. In 1997, Abhaysingraje was elected to the Lok Sabha and resigned from the assembly, bringing about a by-poll. In this by-poll Udayanraje entered the electoral fray on a BJP ticket and the Congress fielded Abhayraje's son Shivendraraje. However, Shivendraraje's nomination did not go down well with several Congress leaders in the district and they all worked against him. Udayanraje won a landslide victory. Indirectly this was Abhaysingraje's first electoral defeat.
The Shiv Sena-BJP government, elated over having netted a Bhosale, made Udayanraje vice-chairman of the Krishna Khore Vikas Prakalp, an ambitious irrigation scheme that promises to change the face of western Maharashtra. He was later inducted into the ministry too.
Today, in the race for the Satara assembly seat, both Bhosales are running neck to neck. The two command tremendous respect in the town and live a charmed life in a world of huge Rajwadas (royal abodes) and sprawling palaces where period chandeliers mix with moulded furniture and carved wooden windows with Netlon mosquito nets.
This time, however, Udayanraje cannot bank upon the support of rebel Congressmen. Satara is one of the few districts in Western Maharashtra where the entire Congress leadership has walked over to Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. What Udayanraje has working in his favour is his pro-active approach to development during his brief tenure as a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government. He also controls several influential co-operative units, though his panel was defeated when he fought against his uncle to gain control of the Ajinkyatara Cooperative Sugar Factory.
Youth in Satara city seem to be rallying around Udayan in large numbers, impressed by his just-do-it approach.
Speaking to him on the lawns of the Jalmandir Palace, his home in Satara, the Doon-school educated Udayanraje came across as a eager royal waiting to re-establish his family on the political map of the state. He wanted to change the image of a pensioner's town that Satara has acquired, and lamented that his uncle, in the 20 years he represented the constituency, did nothing for its development. He also said his uncle's lethargic approach to politics had restricted the family's influence to only Satara, something he would like change.
Abhayraje, of course, denied these charges and pointed to the Ajinkyatara Co-operative Sugar Factory and several other co-operative institutions as his development initiative in Satara. He is banking heavily on these institutions and his mass base in Satara's rural areas to get him votes. With a little help from Sonia Gandhi, he feels he should be able to keep his unbeaten record intact.
Observers say it will be a close contest -- a contest between Udayanraje's youthful exuberance and Abhaysingraje's experience. Any hope of a decisive victory for either Udayanraje and Abhaysingraje bringing to end this periodic dilemma that Satarites face will remain only that -- hope.
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