The Maharashtra government’s decision to extend 16% reservation to the Marathas and 5% to Muslims in educational institutions and jobs is a cynical, desperate attempt to appease sections of the population ahead of the elections due later this year. The Marathas, who comprise 32% of Maharashtra’s population, are the power elite who wield enormous influence over policy; they control sugar and milk cooperatives and are big players in private education and real estate. But the largesse is restricted to a few families — the Chavans, Pawars and Deshmukhs — leaving large sections of the community far behind. Many debt-ridden farmers who committed suicide in the last decade were Marathas.
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The quota politics is an effort to address this imbalance. The Marathas have been demanding reservations since 1991. Three Central Backward Classes Commissions, including the Mandal Commission, have declined their inclusion in the OBC category. The 22nd State Backward Classes Commission, headed by Justice (retired) RM Bapat, rejected the demand in 2008 on the grounds that categorising the Marathas as OBCs would be against the principles of social justice. The Congress-NCP government fell back on social engineering to create a new category, Economically and Socially Backward Castes, to include the Marathas. In the new category, the creamy layer has been excluded and the reservation limited to those whose annual family income is below Rs. 4.5 lakh. The quotas may be challenged in courts for crossing the Supreme Court’s cap of 50% reservation but the government is confident of securing a ruling in its favour.
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The 5% reservation to nearly 50 sub-communities among Muslims is arguably more deserving, given the community’s poor access to education, jobs and state services. This pre-election announcement of quotas is a familiar routine of Congress-NCP politics, reminiscent of the Jats being accommodated in the OBC category just prior to the general election. That move did not really pay off for the Congress. Whether large sections of the Marathas and Muslims, who voted against the parties in the general election, will be wooed by reservations remains to be seen. The decision could, instead, drive other beneficiaries of reservations towards the Opposition BJP-Shiv Sena.