Udayanraje Bhonsle, the thirteenth descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, settled down on a sofa in the reception area of Hotel Maharaja Regency in Satara, in southern Maharashtra. It was the morning of 12 April, five days before the Satara constituency went to polls. Dressed in a spotless white kurta-pyjama, Bhonsle, who is the incumbent MP, appeared relaxed. As we discussed seventeenth-century Maratha history, he drew an unconvincing parallel between the exploits of Maratha warrior kings and present day political issues. “Times have changed, yet problems are very similar,” he said. “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj fought his enemies so people could live freely. Today, we are a global market. Not only have multinationals come to India, but Western culture is invading us.”
The Maratha Empire extended over the subcontinent for almost 150 years, till it was defeated by the British East India Company in the Third Anglo-Maratha War between 1817 and 1818. After the war, the Bhonsles were reduced to petty chieftains, their conduct monitored and directed by a British agent. It was only more than 25 years after independence that the royal family took its first tentative step into electoral politics, when Udayanraje’s father Pratapsinghraje successfully contested for the presidentship of the Satara Municipal Council in 1974.
Bhonsle, who made his debut with local body elections in the early 1990s, won the Satara parliamentary seat in 2009 for the Nationalist Congress Party, defeating his main rival, Purushottam Jadhav of the Shiv Sena, by a margin of 2.97 lakh votes, the third highest in Maharashtra for that election. He has been re-nominated this year, while the NCP attempts to fend off a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, according to polls.
The 48-year-old Bhonsle has support from some unexpected corners, such as the Shramik Mukti Dal, or the toilers’ liberation league, an outfit committed to the visions of Marx, Phule and Ambedkar, and which fights for farmers and workers’ rights on issues of droughts, dams and project evictions. Over a telephone conversation, Bharat Patankar, a veteran leader of the Dal, justified the left wing organisation’s decision to support a wealthy royal candidate. “We have extended support to Udayanraje Bhonsle based on certain principles,” Patankar said. “The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, which has been joined by the likes of Ramdas Athawale, is a communal front, and their projection of Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate is anti-constitutional and a perversion of history.” He explained that the Dal felt that to stop Modi in his tracks, it should support a candidate capable of winning and taking on forces that are anti-secular and against people’s movements.
The Dal has a written undertaking from Bhonsle, committing to the rehabilitation of nearly forty thousand families affected by dams in the region, as well as the Sahyadri Tiger Project. He has also promised to support the Dal’s alternative development model. “We want equitable distribution of resources like air, water, jungle and even spectrum, with special allocations for women and the landless,” Patankar said. “Any development that ignores these aspects will end up destroying humankind and nature.”