November 3, 2023

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In Maratha reservation issue, BJP is playing with fire

5 min read

In India, promising reservation to any caste or community is as daring an act as riding a tiger. Getting off the “reservation tiger” could be even more adventurous. The BJP in Maharashtra would have learnt this by now. Maratha quota  activist Manoj Jarange has ended his fast. But with over half a dozen supporters committing suicide in the last few weeks, the issue has turned into a fireball that could hurt the ruling party’s ambitions.

Marathas, forming 33 per cent of Maharashtra’s population, are the strongest of all communities in the state. Eleven of the state’s 16 chief ministers have been Marathas. Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and half of the 29-member cabinet are Marathas. In the education sector, most major private and deemed universities in the state, like the Bharati Vidyapeeth, D Y Patil University and the Pravara Institute Of Medical Sciences, are founded and run by Marathas.

Despite a wide and strong political and social base, Marathas want reservation. The government cannot give it. This raises two questions. Why do Marathas need reservation and why is complying with their demand so difficult for the ruling alliance? To answer, one needs to dip into the state’s social history.

The Marathas are not a state-wide homogenous community. They are a loose cluster of communities scattered across the state. Historically, they have largely been involved in agrarian activities in peacetime. During wars, they served the armies of the regional princely states. This is why Marathas like to portray themselves as a “warrior community”. Warriors they were, but only during wars. The rest were essentially farmers, even farm labourers. The Maratha nomenclature, many historians have pointed out, came into being when the government enumerators clubbed all agrarian communities under this name.

All was going well for the community till a few years ago when agriculture was remunerative. But with families growing in size, land had to be bifurcated. Incomes dwindled and agriculture became increasingly less attractive. The decline of agriculture was not matched with the growth of industry, especially in the hinterland. The problem was compounded when in the post-Mandal era, poor Maratha families witnessed the dramatic rise of poorer-than-them families from society’s lower strata. They attributed the rise of Dalits and OBCs to reservation – rightly, in a way.

Festive offer

This was the first trigger for the Marathas who thought of reservation as the only panacea to their problem. It took a while for the demand to get the requisite momentum, especially with the state’s political control still in the hands of people from their community. The BJP’s new-age aggressive Hindutva that synchronised with the ascent of Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, in 2014, finally uncorked the genie. The BJP’s efforts to discipline the cooperative sector were perceived as anti-Maratha – many district cooperative banks in the state are fiefdoms of Maratha leaders. Though it’s a different story that Ajit Pawar has now been inducted into the saffron fold, he and a bunch of Maratha leaders provided the BJP the ruse for its anti-corruption facade. The BJP government also initiated investigations into various scams alleged to have taken place during the 15 years of Congress-NCP rule. The move was aimed at breaking the Maratha stronghold. It eventually resulted in many once-corrupt Maratha leaders finding salvation in the BJP.

The move had a political fallout. With dwindling agricultural income and shrinking political space, the frustrated Marathas lost hope. They took out marches all over the state. Though peaceful, around 50 marches over a period of a year showcased the Marathas’ strength and also underlined the distress in the community. At this juncture, the BJP-SS government in the state resurrected the reservation card to lure the community — hitherto strong backers of Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led NCP. Though the Congress-NCP government first attempted Maratha reservation in 2014, it didn’t pursue it. Hoping to win over the Marathas ahead of the 2019 state assembly elections, Fadnavis took up the issue abandoned by the Congress-NCP. The move backfired: The Supreme Court struck down the Maratha Reservation law for exceeding the 50 per cent cap. The SC noted that there were no “extraordinary circumstances” to give reservation to the Maratha community over the 50 per cent ceiling prescribed in its Indra Sawhney verdict. The Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress government also failed to convince the SC.

Thackeray was dethroned after Eknath Shinde walked out of the Shiv Sena to form a government with the BJP. With the new government in office that had a Maratha, Shinde, in the saddle, the community came calling again, this time with a little more aggression. This came in handy for the Opposition led by battle-hardened Sharad Pawar and bruised Uddhav Thackeray. The BJP had accused Thackeray of inept handling of the Maratha reservation issue before the SC. It is now payback time for Thackeray who extended support to the agitating Marathas.

Besides these political machinations, the Maratha reservation issue has a social aspect that is equally, if not more, complicated. That the Marathas are a heterogeneous community complicates the matter. In Marathwada and Vidarbha, the Marathas are considered Kunbis, who are recognised as OBCs. But in western Maharashtra, they are not identified as Kunbis. Moreover, OBCs abhor the idea of sharing the already shrinking reservation pie with the dominant Marathas. Some OBC organisations have wasted no time in flexing their muscles to ward off any move for a Maratha quota. This leaves two options before the Shinde-Fadnavis-Pawar government.

First, get the Narendra Modi government on board to amend the Constitution that will allow bypassing of the Supreme Court-set limit for reservation. That’s easier said than done. A Pandora’s box could open in an

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election year and lead to similar demands in other states.

The second option is to approach the SC with an appeal to review its order in the Maratha reservation case. It’s anybody’s guess which is the tougher proposition. This explains the state government’s helplessness in handling the situation, which, if not handled deftly, threatens to create more rifts in an already divided society.

In a way, this could be Maharashtra’s Babri mosque moment. After his ill-thought move to side with the Muslim orthodoxy in the Shah Bano case, Rajiv Gandhi decided to pacify the Hindus by opening the gates of the Babri Mosque for them in February 1986. This changed the country’s political landscape permanently. Maharashtra may never be the same after the Maratha reservation issue is settled, whichever way.

The writer is editor, Loksatta

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