In Kolhapur, Congress’s Shahu and anger against rebels masks the groundswell of Hindutva

Shiv Sena cadre attend a joint rally of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena (UBT faction) in Kolhapur, on 1 May 2024.
Elections 2024
05 May, 2024

On Maharashtra Day, at the expansive Gandhi maidan in Kolhapur, there was an assembly of colours and symbols unseen in the 64 years of the state’s political history. Flags of the Congress, the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray faction), the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, the Communist Party of India and the Aam Aadmi Party, all of whom had been vicious rivals for much of the state’s history, dotted the venue together. Workers of each of the parties swarmed in through the evening to lend support to a 76-year-old debutante in politics, the Congress’s Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj—the twelfth descendant of Shivaji, a seventeenth-century Maratha king, and the great grandson of Rajarshi Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the first king of the Maratha empire in the princely state of Kolhapur.

Many of the district’s prominent establishments are named after Rajarshi Shahu—highly regarded as an anti-caste reformer for introducing scholarships for students from backward castes and for founding Vedic schools to make the study of scriptures accessible to non-Brahmins. In the Bahujan movement in Maharashtra, Shahu’s name is often uttered in unison with those of Jotirao Phule and BR Ambedkar. The Maha Vikas Aghadi, an alliance founded by the Nationalist Congress Party’s chief Sharad Pawar to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra, sees an all-round acceptability in nominating Rajarshi Shahu’s descendant for the Lok Sabha polls. Additionally, Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA had exited the alliance in March after failed seat-sharing negotiations and is contesting against the MVA in other constituencies. It did not nominate anyone from its party in Kolhapur, choosing to back Shahu’s campaign.

This is the first time in over twenty-five years that someone from the Kolhapur Lok Sabha constituency has filed a nomination from the Congress. It had long been a bastion of Sadashivrao Mandlik, who had been elected from Kolhapur between 1998 and 2014—much of it with the NCP, though in 2009 he stood as an independent. In that election, he had quit the NCP when the party ticket was given to Sambhajiraje, the son of the current MVA nominee Shahu.

The odd assemblage of flags I saw at Kolhapur is a reflection of the dramatic shifts Maharashtra’s politics has seen in recent years. The BJP has successfully divided the two largest opposition parties in the state, the Shiv Sena and the NCP. Sadashivrao Mandlik’s son, Sanjay, is Kolhapur’s incumbent, elected from an undivided Shiv Sena in 2019. When the Shiv Sena was split—with one faction led by the current chief minister Eknath Shinde and the other led by Uddhav Thackeray, the son of party founder Bal Thackeray—Sanjay Mandlik chose Shinde’s rebel faction, allied with the BJP. Sanjay’s predecessor, Dhananjay Mahadik, who was elected on an NCP ticket in 2014, is now a BJP spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member of parliament.

The Kolhapur Lok Sabha constituency has six assembly constituencies under it, half of which were won by the Congress. The NCP and Shiv Sena leaders who won the three other seats have all switched to the BJP-aligned factions of their respective parties. Hasan Mushrif, who won the Kagal assembly segment, had been raided by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with a money-laundering case in March last year. Three months later, he took oath as a cabinet minister along with other NCP leaders who had rebelled against party supremo Sharad Pawar and backed his nephew Ajit Pawar’s BJP-aligned faction.

Anger against the perceived betrayal of these leaders was the most evident sentiment at the Kolhapur rally. Sanjay Pawar, a senior leader of Shiv Sena-UBT, said in his speech that “there will be no votes for traitors.” Shiv Sena-UBT workers showed up with placards featuring the undivided party supremo Bal Thackeray raising a pointed finger. The placards read, “Gaddaraana maafi nahi”—no forgiveness for the traitors. They roared in approval every time a speaker at the podium made a remark against Mandlik and others who had “backstabbed” the Thackerays by joining the Shinde-led Sena. One of the speakers declared that by rebelling against the Uddhav bloc, they had betrayed Matoshree, a reference to the family residence of the Thackerays.

Unsurprisingly, the election campaign across Maharashtra has seen a constant tussle over who is the true inheritor of Bal Thackeray’s legacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described Uddhav’s bloc as the “duplicate Shiv Sena” in his election speeches. “They will see who is real and who is fake after the elections,” Rajendra, a Shiv Sena-UBT leader, told me. Bhimrao Patil, a Shiv Sena member from the district, said that a major grouse against Mandlik was his inaccessibility. “He did nothing in five years,” he told me. “He would not be available on the phone even to us who are from the Shiv Sena. His PA would say ‘sir will call in two minutes.’ The two minutes would become two days and we still wouldn’t hear from him.” Girish Phonde, a leader of the CPI, which is also campaigning for Shahu, was of the same opinion. He told me that Mandlik has a reputation for being unavailable, which was cemented especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalled seeking an appointment with Mandlik through his assistant to present a memorandum but he did not get a meeting even though he is a known activist in the region. “You can imagine what would happen if common people try to approach him,” Phonde told me.

At a Shiv Sena (Shinde’s faction) office in Kolhapur, though I had started with a question on Mandlik’s electoral prospects, its leader, Riyaz Bagwan, began by heaping praise on Modi. “In 10 years, Modi has made a name across the world on the topic of development,” Bagwan told me. He counted the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana, a publicly funded health-insurance scheme, as one of the Modi government’s major accomplishments. “Now people can get free operations in Kolhapur’s big multinational hospitals,” Bagwan said. What matters in a national election, he told me, is what Modi has done for the people. “We will have to sit with a book to list all the benefits people have received,” he said.

In Mandlik’s defence, Bagwan said, “It’s not possible to visit every village. His work is clearly mentioned in the progress report. It does not print lies.” In his progress report, Mandlik claims that it became necessary to exit the Thackeray bloc for the development of his constituency. “I was successful in acquiring over 800 crore rupees from the various development funds of the central and state governments in the last two years,” the report states. Mandlik’s statement concedes that joining the BJP fold had become necessary to accelerate access to state funds. Bagwan was dismissive of the “traitor” label tagged on members of the Shinde Sena. “Our party’s name remains the same. Our symbol also remains the same. The party does not revolve around a family,” he argued. He said that the party is confident of winning this election on the plank of development.

Contrary to Bagwan’s insistence that the Modi government’s campaign is focused on developmental issues, Modi’s election speeches have heavily featured propagandist statements, fanning fears about Muslims gaining dominance if the Congress were elected to power. At his rally in Kolhapur on 7 April, Modi said, “INDI Alliance is so deep in appeasement politics that they celebrate Aurangzeb”—a seventeenth-century Mughal emperor who fought Shivaji—“in the land of the great Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.” The PM, who has often used the Urdu word “shehzada”, or prince, to take a jibe at Rahul Gandhi, did not, however, confront the MVA’s candidate for being a dynast.

A Shiv Sena flag flies over a joint rally of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena (UBT faction) in Kolhapur, on 1 May 2024.

Phonde told me that sugar cooperatives hold significant sway over political fates in western Maharashtra. He pointed to the example of Raju Shetti, a farmers’ leader and president of the Swabhimani Paksha—the electoral wing of a farmers’ union—who won two consecutive elections in 2009 and 2014 in the neighbouring Hatkanangale constituency. He could not have pulled that off without the support of sugarcane farmers. “They want to strengthen Raju Shetti for their bargaining powers,” he said. Shetti is contesting from Hatkanangale in this election as well, in a four-cornered contest with the Mahayuti—the local name for the BJP’s alliance—as well as the MVA and the VBA.

The Congress, too, finds its primary base in agrarian clout. Satej “Bunty” Patil is a member of Maharashtra’s legislative council and the Congress party’s district committee president. He is the party’s most prominent face in Kolhapur, wielding immense clout over sugar and dairy cooperatives in the region, and is central to Shahu’s campaign. “Maharaj decided to go with the Congress knowing that Bunty Patil’s support would help him,” a local Congress leader told me. The party was also an obvious fit, given that in Kolhapur, within the MVA, it is the only party whose elected representatives have not deserted to join the BJP alliance. Bunty Patil, Phonde said, has taken on the campaign as if he is contesting the election himself. “His own image will become brighter in the Congress party and it will benefit him to get the state leadership,” Phonde told me.

The local Congress leader said that Shahu is not going to secure a win simply because he is Chhatrapati Shivaji and Rajarshi Shahu’s descendant—as Sambhajiraje’s defeat in the 2009 election shows. Mandlik had stirred controversy by arguing that Shahu was adopted and therefore not a “real heir” to the Shahu dynasty. Bagwan reiterated this during our conversation, telling me that “our Shahu” had passed away long ago. “We respect the throne. But this election has been forced on him,” he said.

Shahu himself does not harp on his royal legacy, instead stating in interviews that he decided to contest this election to “save democracy” and that he was concerned about rising authoritarianism. The MVA had roped in Shahu in the hope of drawing in voters from Maratha castes—but the incumbent Mandlik, who is seeking another term, is also a Maratha. “Dalits and Muslims will vote for us but it is hard to tell how the Hindus will vote,” the Congress leader admitted.

Kolhapur has a history of social-justice politics, couched in the popular slogan “Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar.” But it has not been immune to Hindu nationalism. During the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in 2009, local pandal organisers in Sangli districts’s Miraj had refused to immerse the idols in protest against the removal of a display that depicted Shivaji killing Mughal general Afzal Khan. This erupted in violence that spilled over to Kolhapur, where Hindu organisations called for a shutdown and were supported by both the BJP and the undivided Shiv Sena. Govind Pansare, a rationalist and leader of the Communist Party of India, had worked extensively to critique the appropriation of Chhatrapati Shivaji by Hindu fundamentalists who present him as a victor over Muslim emperors. In 2015, members of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu militant organisation killed Pansare in Kolhapur. Since 2015, the situation has only worsened.

In June last year, members of the Hindu outfit Shiv Prathishthan attacked Muslim-owned shops in Kolhapur, following a social-media post that circulated among teenagers. Hindu organisations claimed that the post had glorified Aurangzeb, therefore insulting Shivaji. Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister, the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, sought to fuel this sentiment, saying that Aurangzeb’s “auladein”—progeny—had taken birth in Maharashtra. “We are conducting a probe into who is glorifying Aurangzeb and who is provoking people to do so,” he had told reporters.

Just weeks later, thousands in Kolhapur took out a march named the “Shiv Shahu Sadbhavana Yatra” in a call for peace and commitment to secular values. Shahu Maharaj was at the centre of this rally organised by the Rajarshi Shahu Salokha Manch—a coalition of progressive activists in the region. Local party workers affiliated with MVA pointed to this as an example of Kolhapur’s resistance to communalism.

After June 2023, Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut, who had been central in making the Shiv Sena break its historic alliance with the BJP, accused the saffron party of bringing Aurangzeb back to life over and over for political gains. At the Gandhi maidan rally, Uddhav criticised Modi for making an issue out of the consumption of mutton during sawan, a month during which some Hindu castes abstain from meat. Much to the delight of his supporters in the audience, Uddhav said that Kolhapur is most known for tambda and pandhra rassa—soupy gravies traditionally made from mutton.

But in a political landscape with little space for anything other than Hindutva and its varied shades, Aurangzeb remains the favoured choice of insult, even for those opposed to the BJP. At an election rally in Buldhana, Raut likened Modi to Aurangzeb, stating that an “Aurangzebi attitude” was marching towards Maharashtra from Gujarat and Delhi. This is also the first election to be held after Aurangabad, where Aurangzeb was buried, was renamed as Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar.

In the process of dismissing Hindutva as a relevant factor in Kolhapur, Prathamesh Kamble, president of the Kolhapur south unit of the OBC Youth Congress, implicitly reflected the entrenchment of the Hindu Right far beyond the BJP. “Who started the Ram Mandir?” he asked. “It was Rajiv Gandhi. Why don’t they declare that?” He also said that it was former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, of the Congress, who had provided the land for the temple’s construction. Rather than denounce the temple project for the violence that it had fomented over the years, the Congress wants a share of credit in its successful completion. “We are also attached to Ram Mandir. Ram belongs to all of us,” he said.

It is exactly this that helps the Shinde faction to claim Bal Thackeray’s legacy. Among the introductory pages of his progress report, Mandlik states that it was Bal’s dream that the Ram Mandir should come up at Ayodhya and that it has been fulfilled under Modi’s leadership. Phonde told me, “For BJP’s radical Hindutva, only a softer Hindutva party can replace it.”

The fear of being associated with any statement seen as non-Hindu was visible in the MVA’s rejection of support from Muslim parties too. In the thick of the campaign for Shahu, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen—which has a small but unignorable presence in western Maharashtra—had also extended support to him. The Congress issued a press note in response, stating that they had never sought support from AIMIM and therefore there was no question of accepting it. Hindu Right organisations such as the Sakal Hindu Samaj welcomed this statement. Similar situations have occurred elsewhere, like the Aam Aadmi Party declining support from Imam Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and describing the offer as “communal.”

On 22 January, the day the Ram temple was inaugurated, Shahu described the occasion as an important one. Shivaji’s work, he said, was inspired by Ram. Shahu had visited Ayodhya when he was eight years old. When the reporters asked him when he would be going there again, Shahu smiled and replied, “let us all go.”

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