It's a battle royale. And it's all in the family. Three royal personages-direct descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj-and six commoners pitted against them, make the tussle for the Satara parliamentary and assembly constituency among the most unique in Maharashtra. Locked in a virtual eye-to-eye combat for the assembly constituency are an uncle and nephew pair: Abhaysinh Raje Bhosale, 55, “Bhausaheb Maharaj”to the people in his constituency, and Shrimant Chhatrapati Udayan Raje Bhosale, 32, thirteenth in the line of succession to the Maratha throne.
Both are soft-spoken and articulate, indeed, so similar are they in temperament and attitude that there's little for the electorate to distinguish between them-except perhaps the youth of one and the maturity of the other. While the uncle is contesting on the Nationalist Congress Party (ncp) ticket, the nephew has been fielded by the bjp. But the usp of both contestants is the Shivaji legacy. Also in the fray but not directly pitted against them is Sarlashkar Bahadur Dadaraje Khardekar, great-uncle to Udayan and brother-in-law to Abhaysinh (like the European royals of yore, the Bhosales still marry their cousins). Dadaraje is contesting the Satara parliamentary seat on a Congress ticket recently vacated by Abhaysinh.
It's a difficult battle for all three, considering they were all on the same side once-Dadaraje having been particularly close to Sharad Pawar. He is now pitted against the Shiv Sena's Hindurao Nimbalkar, and if he's extremely confident of winning it's largely because of his eloquence, education and the royal tag. The Sena's claim to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj is completely neutralised in Satara. In '98 Abhaysinh, then in the Congress, had wrested the seat from the Shiv Sena, just because of his lineage. Here, the descendant of the legendary warrior king appears to be the people's obvious choice for the parliamentary seat.
But it's a tricky choice for the assembly seat, where the electorate has to choose between two descendants of Shivaji. The uncle 'Bhausaheb Maharaj' is extremely popular. Unlike many royals, there's little evidence of arrogance in his demeanour. As he romps through jowar and sugarcane fields in Satara, passengers in a state transport bus force the driver to stop and lean out of the windows for a glimpse of their Maharaja. 'Bhausaheb' acknowledges them rather shyly and they move on satisfied. But not before wondering aloud why he is pitted against his brother's son.
“Maybe because Udayan's desperate to be an mla. And he might not get the chance as long as I'm around,”says Abhaysinh. When he took up the succession after the premature death of his brother Chhatrapati Pratapsinh Raje Bhosale, Udayan was barely a child. For 20 years since then, Abhaysinh has won every election without fail.
Perhaps his humility helps. Women grinding masala in their huts are charmed to find him framed in their doorway and plead: “I know it's the busy farming season for you. But just spare an hour to vote for me.”He emerges from the hut and an old man, leaning on a stick, bends down to pay obeisance to his king. 'Bhausaheb Maharaj' is quick to pick him up, call him 'nanasaheb' and enquire after his health. 'Nanasaheb' then follows Bhausaheb Maharaj around all day on his arduous campaign trail.
If the uncle is hard at work so is the nephew. In Satara town Udayan is attempting to puncture his uncle's image of humility and modesty. Like his uncle Udayan doesn't lord over his 'subjects'. Perhaps he's heard his uncle tell the electorate that he is “too arrogant to merit too many votes". There is no evidence of that arrogance, though, as he goes on a door-to-door campaign with folded hands in the pouring rain. Men and women throng balconies and roadsides for a glimpse of their crown prince who has, of late, been busy building himself a new palace, the Jal Mandir-a mix of the colonial, Maratha and Mughal styles-just a stone's throw away from his uncle's mansion in Satara.
Udayan has picked a particularly good day-Raksha Bandhan-to launch his door-to-door visits. If old men leaning on sticks bow before Bhausaheb Maharaj, the young boys and girls in the city are tickled to find his nephew in their midst. They are waiting with sweets and tilak and rakhis. But today, the crown prince has nothing to give them in return. Had it not been for the EC's code of conduct he might well have doled out gold and silver, silks and brocades. But the EC's video cameras are keeping a close watch. So Udayan can only ask for the blessings of his 'subjects' even as they seek his.
With the fire of youth in his belly, Udayan has a blueprint for Satara's development-something that has never been drawn up before. And that's his main grouse and electoral plank. Counters Abhaysinh: “Udayan sees only what he wants to see. He doesn't see the development I've undertaken in the last 20 years. Why else would the people vote for me?"
Criticism of each other by this chacha-bhatija pair is quite restrained. Both laugh when quizzed about the 'battle royale'. Yet both are conscious that they're part of the same family, and each denies any history of bitterness that's now led them to be on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. “No there's no quarrel with my uncle. But what can you say to a man whose views are so different from yours? We don't have a joint family so there's no question of conflict. We have just simply grown apart,”says Udayan.
The absence of any overt quarrel or bitterness makes it so much more difficult for the people of Satara to decide who'll be their electorally-chosen 'king' in the next millennium. “My uncle could've been the chief minister of Maharashtra soon after Vasantdada Patil. But he was always blessed with the wrong advisors, inadvisable moves, lack of foresight and an extremely introverted character,”says Udayan.
Though parties don't strictly matter here, his exit from the Congress has not altered Abhaysinh Raje Bhosale's image one bit in the eyes of his 'subjects'. So far as Udayan goes, the people of Satara openly declare, “The lotus (bjp symbol) doesn't count here. If he wins, it will be a victory for our Maharaj. Not for the bjp.”Says a voter: “Our young Maharaja is, well, very young. He has the fire and the promise. But Bhausaheb Maharaj, too, has done considerable work here, looked after us.”Voters admit they are “torn between the two".
But Satara cannot shrug away its responsibility by refusing to take sides. Enter commoner Laxman Sadashiv Uthale of the Congress, who seeks to ease the dilemma. In a hopeless contest against the two royals, he has a one-point campaign: the royals are using democracy to settle personal scores and the issue of their succession. If the people vote for him, he would be more responsible, he'd be sitting amidst them and not looking down from the lofty heights of a palace and a mansion, he says.
But the people of Satara, hedging their bets, have ears only for the royals. One wonders, were they to lay a wager on who might win or lose, what the odds on the Satara seat (both the Vidhan Sabha and the Lok Sabha) staying with the family would be? The King is dead, long live the King!