By Omkar Khandekar
For the past five minutes, a dozen-odd karyakartas have been waiting for their leader to stop looking through them. Men twice the leader’s age and experience, their backs bent in varying degrees of deference. One of them has tried to speak but has been quickly shushed. There’s an unsaid code: speak only when spoken to.
Parth Pawar, all this while, has been trying to understand why I want to write about him. I thought it was self-evident.
He’s the scion of one of Maharashtra’s most influential political empires. His granduncle Sharad Pawar, head of the Nationalist Congress Party, wields a clout disproportionate to the seven MPs his party sent to New Delhi last term, to the extent that he is often talked about as a likely PM candidate. And yet, the 78-year-old veteran had to excuse himself from another run at Parliament last month to accommodate his 29-year-old grandnephew’s debut in the upcoming polls.
Parth listens to my explanation. A few moments of silence follow. Then he looks at the karyakartas. On cue, they gather around him for photos and selfies. “Nivadnuk jinkwun anaichae (Make sure [he] wins the election),” a local leader tells them sternly after. They smile meek smiles and nod meek nods. Already, some are immortalising the moment on Instagram.
Parth is tall, formidably built and often unsmiling. That late March evening, when we had been introduced at an NCP leader’s birthday party in a shimmering bungalow on the outskirts of Pune, he had seemed uncertain about being interviewed. His father Ajit Pawar, the spitfire former deputy CM of Maharashtra, had asked him to lie low, seeing the controversies dogging his campaign. Since his first public appearance the previous week, Parth was being trolled for being clueless about politics, lacking on-stage charisma and “speaking Marathi like an Englishman”. Critics were asking why he, a manor-born, SoBo-raised, London-educated lad, was parachuted into the electoral battleground of Maval, an industrial and farming region in western Maharashtra. Parth’s subsequent public appearances too were mostly about invoking his legacy. “I have my aunt (Supriya Sule), father (Ajit Pawar) and grandfather (Sharad Pawar) with me,” he said once. “If I don’t work, I’ll immediately feel the heat.”
As the karyakartas disperse, I walk back up to Parth. English is his preferred tongue. A Bombay drawl and aristocratic swagger his default tone. He seems a misfit in that gathering of party foot soldiers from the mofussil. We discuss our similar trajectories of growing up in Mumbai, studying in the UK and being exiled in Pune. It helps break his gruff guard. Before long, he would start calling me “bro”.
We agree that I’d join him for a campaign rally over the next couple days. As I’m ready to call it a night and return to Pune, he insists that I stay back: “I’ll drop you.”
A study of Indian Parliament published in Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics showed that an average of one in every four candidates elected since 2004 belonged to a political family.
There are “functional benefits that family ties provide to organisationally weak parties… coupled with the weak constraints that such parties have against dynasticism,” wrote Kanchan Chaudhary, who edited the book. Performance doesn’t seem to matter; Guna in Madhya Pradesh continues to be one of the most backward districts in India despite a 17-year rule by Jyotiraditya Scindia who belongs to a former royal family of Gwalior. India, The Telegraph editor Manini Chatterjee told the BBC in 2014 by way of explanation, “was essentially a feudal culture”.
Conversations with the NCP cadre in Maval make Chatterjee’s observation evident. Parth’s victory is a foregone conclusion for them. He might be a novice but in a constituency where the NCP has lost two successive elections, they feel a Pawar candidate is their best chance. Already, Ajit Pawar has been headlining some of his son’s rallies and personally calling up local leaders, warning them against “match-fixing”.
Parth too has been trying hard to project himself as a man of the masses, hopping temples, riding bullock carts and travelling in passenger trains. His father’s disciplinarian ways have kept him on his toes. At a recent rally, when he reached an hour and a half late, Ajit Pawar waited till his son turned up. Then he walked out.
Around 38% of candidates put up by Maharashtra’s four major political parties for the upcoming elections — the BJP, Congress, Shiv Sena and the NCP — are part of political families. The NCP leads this family pack with 12 out of 22 candidates. Parth’s foray into electoral politics is thus no surprise. What is remarkable is his dynasty’s survival through multi-billion rupee corruption scandals over the past three decades. From irrigation scam, Lavasa township scam, or multiple land allotment and crop-import scams, Sharad Pawar, his daughter Supriya Sule and nephew Ajit Pawar have weathered all allegations with little impact on their individual electoral fortunes beyond reduced victory margins. As investigators have failed to prove the charges in courts, the NCP leaders claim to be victims of “politically motivated” charges.
Parth has the same stock response to allegations. “We never misused power,” he tells me during the ride back to Pune in his SUV. “We were always humble.”
But how does he, part of the proverbial 1%, minus any political work experience but already weighed down by a tainted legacy, see himself as a leader of a people he had little connect with until a year ago?
Because, says Parth, he was built for it.
Parth’s first brush with “public service” was in seventh grade. As a football jock in Mumbai’s all-boys Campion School, Parth was used to be being feared or despised. “The best defence is attack,” he says. “If anyone acted smart with me, I attacked.” One day, he decided to give the “nerds” a go at penalty kicks. “I gathered them one by one and made them score. They got really happy.” His tough-boy image got a sudden makeover. Soon he was being invited to everyone’s birthday parties. “Then I thought, why should I do stupid things because other people are doing it?”
For college, Parth flew to London, enrolling himself for a business degree at Regent’s University. His real aim, however, was to experience the “elite scene” of the British capital. “I wanted to have all the fun in my life. I knew I’d be a public servant and then I won’t be able to do these things.”
London was his first brush with complete anonymity. For years, he had grown up around cops and ministers, getting preferential treatment everywhere (“As a kid, I thought people just liked me!”). Power, he soon realised, came from money. His father had put him on a tight budget, so Parth had to “hustle” his way out of financial constraints.
Two years into his degree, he had had enough. He packed his bags and returned to India, hoping to finish his degree from Mumbai University.
“I was under the impression that Mumbai University was a cakewalk, you could do anything out there… At the time, Rajesh Tope was the education minister. Whenever my friends wanted something, I would help them out with Tope. If they wanted admission in a college, I’d put them on to him. I thought that if they can get in, 100% it will be easy for me.”
But Mumbai University refused to give in. His father too didn’t want to pull strings. Parth had to begin his undergraduate studies all over again. “Maybe I wasted too much time hustling around,” he says. “If I had only gone up to the [education] counselor, just followed the process of being logical, I wouldn’t have lost two years.”
We have reached the Pawar mansion in the heart of Pune. Parth introduces me to his father as he walks past us, down the softly lit, tastefully furnished living room. The elder Pawar nods, grunts a good night and disappears up a staircase. Parth flops on the couch.
How well is he handling his new role, I ask, noticing his exhaustion. “I’m losing hair,” he laughs.
By 2012, Ajit Pawar’s political career was riddled by a series of controversies. A whistle-blower from Maharashtra’s water resources department had alleged financial misappropriation, saying that the state had spent around `70,000 crore when Ajit helmed the ministry from 1999 to 2009 but added only 0.1% land area under irrigation.
Ajit, then the deputy chief minister, stepped down briefly. After being reinstated the next year, he was pilloried again, this time for his remarks on the drought-like condition in the state: “If there’s no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate in it?”
“At that time, I had given up on politics because I was so pissed off,” says Parth. “After doing such great work, we were criticised for a scam we were not part of. Our PRO didn’t do a good job and our name was tarnished…” But somewhere, he knew his mind worked “like a politician”.
“I remember I read the book 48 Laws of Power [by Robert Greene]. First law is, never outshine your master… Learn to keep your friends close, your enemies closer… And I was like, I know everything. It’s in me.”
Last year, Parth briefly took charge of rebuilding his father’s image on social media.
Noticing his work, Ajit offered that he contest elections from Maval. Sharad Pawar was against it. If he wanted to join politics, he should start by working on the field for two to three years, the septuagenarian told him. But Ajit thought otherwise.
“My father said that even he got the opportunity at the age of 30, just like that. He stood and won. And if we know that we’ll win only by the legacy of Sharad Pawar, why shouldn’t I stand?”
Doesn’t he feel that he’s walking over a lot of deserving candidates? Parth’s face contorts. “That’s what I’m trying to say, bro,” he says.
“Election is about winning… Why do we put caste politics to play? Why do we have someone from SC, OBC…? Do we like it? But you have to do it. It’s how our country is….” At another point, Parth said, “When Rajiv Gandhi started politics, he was a pilot. Then he became the PM.”
But isn’t dynasty rule exactly what Congress is criticised for? Parth pauses. “Do you like the BJP?” he asks.
Nothing of what I say stems from my political preferences, I tell him. But Parth has now visibly withdrawn. On the defensive, he’s ready to attack. News is politically motivated or full of platitudes, he says. It never tells you what makes the people tick. One must spend time on the ground to understand why people accept a Thackeray or a Saheb (Sharad Pawar’s nickname). He offers to put me in touch with one of his friends whom he reckons shares my disillusionment with present-day politics. “It all comes down to maturity,” he says.
My time’s up. The next morning, his media coordinator told me Ajit Pawar wasn’t too pleased that I had bypassed the media team and approached his son straightaway. I was asked to stay off his campaign trail. “If they see you with Parth anywhere except public events,” the coordinator would plead, “I’ll lose my job.”
Maruti Bhapkar shows me an old newspaper article he’s carefully kept in his cupboard. It’s from 2012, speaking of a warning by the then deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar to his party cadre to make sure that Bhapkar doesn’t get re-elected in the upcoming Pimpri Chinchwad municipal elections. An independent corporator then, Bhapkar’s RTIs and PILs had put a spotlight on many of the family’s corruption scandals, from Lavasa land scam to the about `400 crore financial irregularities in the NCP-ruled Pimpri Chinchwad municipal corporation.
“This was their response then,” says Bhapkar. “And today, Parth is coming to meet me.”
It’s the morning after my late-night chat with Parth. I hadn’t expected to run into him so soon, not after my access had been cut off. What’s on his mind, I ask Bhapkar. “Political compulsions,” he says.
“Be it Congress-NCP or the BJP-Shiv Sena, my constituency has seen unfulfilled promises and corruption scandals during their rule.” But during the 15-year Congress-NCP rule, he was free to take out street protests during the party chiefs’ visits to his constituency. In the past five years, he says, the police took him in day-long “preventive custody” whenever the BJP-Sena chiefs were in the vicinity.
An hour into our conversation, one of Bhapkar’s neighbours tells him Parth was expected to come in. Bhapkar excuses himself to wear a freshly ironed kurta. I watch Parth come in, pose for the cameras with Bhapkar and then ask for a private audience. The media coordinator notices me and panics. I assure her that my presence is a coincidence, that I intend to play discreet. I walk out of the house and sit on a small platform away from Bhapkar’s residence, behind a few water barrels. A few minutes later, I hear someone shout: “Hey bro!”
My hiding place has proved inadequate. I rise to greet Parth but he shoots a look at his media coordinator and turns away from me. I return to Bhapkar’s residence. How did it go, I ask him. “I asked him how he planned to solve the problems of unemployment, corruption, agrarian distress and illegal encroachment. He said, let’s discuss this at length sometime,” says Bhapkar.
Did he mean it?
“The way I see it, this election is about democracy against dictatorship,” he says. “And when it comes to Parth, I tell myself, dagdapeksha veet mau (a brick is better than a rock).”
The writer is a freelance journalist
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of