On Wednesday (February 21), an interview on a public platform created an unprecedented curiosity. Two politicians from Maharashtra - from two different political times and ideological leanings - had a "heart-to-heart" talk in Pune that was witnessed by thousands who can't seem to wrap their heads around it.
NCP president Sharad Pawar was interviewed by MNS supremo Raj Thackeray.
याच कार्यक्रमात 'संवाद दोन पिढ्यांचा' या शीर्षाखाली महाराष्ट्रातले लोकप्रिय तरुण नेतृत्व राज ठाकरे यांच्याशी दिलखुलास गप्पा करण्याचा मुलाखतीचा कार्यक्रम राज यांच्या खुमासदार शैलीमुळे चांगलाच रंगला. या निमित्ताने महाराष्ट्रातल्या तरुणाईच्या मनातल्या प्रश्नांना उत्तरं देता आली. pic.twitter.com/8hdtTve1Ia— Sharad Pawar (@PawarSpeaks) February 21, 2018
This could probably only happen in Maharashtra: @PawarSpeaks in conv with @rajthackeraymns on a public platform. Very interesting. And Raj T probably makes a better tv anchor than neta: doesn't shout, interrupt or make a communal remark! ????https://t.co/alDKdPWech— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) February 22, 2018
The first obvious reason behind the curiosity was the "love-hate" relationship that the two leaders have shared in the past. Second was the political ripples the interview would create. And as expected it did, and that is what needs to be analysed.
Both Raj and Pawar at some juncture of their political careers have praised Narendra Modi. Raj had gone to Gujarat as a state guest when Modi was the chief minister. On his return, the MNS chief hailed Modi in every speech.
On the other hand, soon after the public announcement of demonetisation, PM Modi visited Pune and called Pawar his "political guru".
But, of late, both Pawar and Raj have been taking digs at the BJP-led government and PM Modi. While Raj is has been using his cartoonist brush to take on the BJP government almost on a daily basis, Pawar has taken out a "Halla Bol Yatra".
It is clear both the leaders were in search of that one moment to break away from their image of being Modi fans. Wednesday's interview that was also widely watched on television and online provided just that. The first 20 minutes of the interview were spent on Modi bashing.
And it was not only restricted to breaking these stereotypes. The programme, though was touted as non-political, had thick political overtones. So who among the two earned some brownie points with the interview? The answer is both.
Those who know Sharad Pawar and his brand of politics for the past 50 years, also know it well that no move of his is without any political intent. Pawar agreeing to share the stage with Raj in itself had the message. But in the larger perspective, the event was more of a test case to gauge the mood of the people, the issues that have the potential to stir up Maharashtra politics - Marathi - the language, and Maratha - the caste.
Raj has built his party on his militant Marathi agenda, once floated by his mentor and uncle Bal Thackeray and his party Shiv Sena.
Raj's aggression gradually stole the agenda from the original Marathi Manoos party, and made him the sole champion of the issue lately.
While Pawar may not like this, his party and its politics have largely been Maratha-centric. It was the NCP and it's erstwhile home minister the late RR Patil, who had taken up the issue against American scholar James Laine for portraying Shivaji in a bad light.
Majority of the top leaders of the party are from the dominant caste, including the Pawar family itself.
While the language issue around "Marathi asmita (pride)" is largely urban-centric, Maratha caste has been out on the streets with demands mostly in rest of Maharashtra. And both the leaders have their respective strongholds in these areas.
So, on Wednesday when Raj asked Sharad Pawar about one name that binds Maharashtra together, pat came the reply from a seasoned Pawar - Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
The answer though is true for all practical purposes, the political significance of it cannot be ignored. Especially when Maharashtra has recently seen huge caste churn following the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Many were taken by surprise when Pawar, who always refers to the legacy of "Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar" in his speeches, spoke about reservations on economic criterion. This change is not targeted against any community, but certainly is to please the Maratha community that has taken out mammoth rallies demanding reservations.
His stand of reservations on economic criterion makes Pawar more acceptable in urban areas.
On the other hand, Pawar made statements like the ones made by the Thackerays in the past. For instance, there seems to be a ploy to break Mumbai from Maharashtra, or the "Marathi manoos" being victimised in Delhi.
Pawar's "Marathi stand" is very much on the lines of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Both Raj and Pawar complimented each other for the issues taken up by their respective parties as many watched the interview in awe.
What became apparent was Pawar's tactical shift from the "left of the centre" to "right of the centre".
For him, the MNS could be a possible ally and Wednesday's mega event was to gauge the reactions.
Pawar's popularity was perhaps on the peak after he quit the Congress and formed his own outfit. The best thing that worked for him was the issue over which he quit - Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins and naming his party as a "Rashtravadi" (Nationalist) party.
But Pawar, who later joined hands with the Congress, slowly mellowed down his nationalist agenda and had to be reduced to a junior partner to the Congress.
He knows well that to make a comeback, he needs to change the track without losing his secular focus. The MNS supremo provided him just that.
Lately, the MNS supremo too was looking to stretch out his hand to an ally. Raj has toyed with the idea of an alliance with the BJP and even Shiv Sena in the past. But both the attempts failed. Now with Pawar almost approving Raj's brand of politics, it has thrown up various possibilities of political realignment.
Talking about an alliance between the two will be way too premature. But is there a possibility? Certainly, yes.
The NCP has very little presence in Mumbai while Raj's party is almost non-existent in rural Maharashtra. Through Wednesday's event both the leaders have rolled the dice. They are keenly waiting for the reaction it generates, and so are we.