A year after he was forced to stay off the traditional puja at Pandharpur in Maharashtra amid Maratha unrest, Devendra Fadnavis returned to the temple town early Friday morning and performed the puja since, having won over the community with quotas and raincoats.
The state chief minister has always performed the puja to the Vitthal-Rukmini deity at Pandharpur in Solapur district on the auspicious day of aashadhi ekdashi. Fadnavis had performed the puja in 2015, 2016 and 2017 when was chief minister; however last year, the Maratha Kranti Morcha agitating for quotas warned Fadnavis against visiting the town. The chief minister cancelled the visit, saying police had intercepted messages saying snakes would be released among thousands of warkaris to create panic and stampede. Warkaris are pilgrims who travel by foot to Pandharpur from all parts of the state.
However, on June 27 the Bombay High Court upheld a law that Fadnavis’s government had passed last year to give quota to the restive Marathas. The quota was a demand first raised in 1989 and exactly 30 years later, a non-Maratha chief minister—Fadnavis is a Brahmin—fulfilled it, earning praise from Marathas.
There is another reason too: The chief minister has ensured that as many as 6 lakh raincoats will be distributed among the warkaris set off on their pilgrimage through rains and tricky mountain ranges.
“This was chief minister’s personal initiative in individual capacity. Last year, he exempted the wari (pilgrimage) from plastic ban in Maharashtra since the warkaris have to protect their stuff from rains using plastic bags and cover. It was then that he thought of doing something that would meet the plastic ban rules and provide protection from rain as well," said Shrikant Bharatiya, political officer on special duty to Fadnavis. He said the chief minister then tied up with a non-governmental organisation called Nirmal Wari that works to ensure a clean and garbage-free pilgrimage. “This has been done through the NGO since it was already associated with the wari and the chief minister made sure that raincoats are distributed well before the wari begins," Bharatiya said.
Last year, the opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party had criticised Fadnavis’s decision to stay off the puja, saying it insulted the faith of the warkaris.
A Bharatiya Janata Party functionary, who requested anonymity, said the decision “personally hurt" the chief minister as the pilgrimage is one of the “socio-cultural landmarks of Maharashtra" and no chief minister would like to miss the honour of leading the puja.
The BJP functionary said many party members had suggested that these raincoats bear the name of Fadnavis and mention that it’s his donation, but the chief minister did not want to make political use of this gesture.