The Marathas, used to dominating Maharashtra’s politics, unprecedentedly took to the streets. Protests from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and Muslims became more vociferous. Devendra Fadnavis was under constant covert scrutiny as only the second Brahmin CM of Maharashtra.
The resignation of a senior minister and the imprisonment of a former minister on corruption charges triggered loud voices of protests that drowned questions whether the graft allegations were valid.
All in all, the year that went by brought to the fore the fissures in Maharashtra’s social and political fabric.
“This one year has set Maharashtra back by at least 50 years as far as social reform goes,” says Surendra Jondhale, head of Mumbai University’s department of civic and politics. Elaborating, he pointed out that Maharashtra’s social leaders always used to critique their own communities even as they strove for development. But this time, communities chose to press their demands by targeting each other. “It is a great setback to Maharashtra’s legacy,” Jondhale said.
The fault lines could further deepen and widen in 2017 as political parties ratchet up social tensions further ahead of polls to major municipal corporations and zilla parishads.
The Maratha protests, though without party affiliation on the surface, drew massive support from Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) heavyweights wary of losing their votebank to the BJP.
The protests were for reservation in government jobs and education and changes to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which sections of Marathas felt was being misused to target them. But, with Maratha politicians across parties showing solidarity, the protests also came to be seen as a response to the perceived sidelining of the community in decision-making and power structures. Some pointed to the BJP-led government’s systematic attempt to break down existing power structures of cooperative banks and sugar cooperatives. Others to the dwindling political representation of the Maratha community, comprising 32 percent of the state’s population, in the government, with a Brahmin chief minister and less than 50 per cent of the cabinet comprising Maratha leaders, against the historical average of 60 per cent.
Moving to the OBCs, the resignation of Eknath Khadse as revenue minister for alleged irregularities in the purchase of a Pune plot was painted by some within the BJP itself as a move against the coomunity. Khadse, mentored by the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, was from the Leva Patil community and one of the BJP leaders in the state with a mass base, especially in North Maharashtra.
“After Munde’s death, though his daughter Pankaja is in politics and in the government, the mantle of OBC leadership among senior leaders was passed on to Khadse. Some of us were definitely worried about the caste ramifications of his resignation,” a senior BJP leader said.
The social polarisation got graver as members of the Dalit and OBC communities joined hands to protest too, insisting that their share of reservation should not be touched while accommodating the Marathas’ demands.
As the OBCs consolidated, several such protests turned into a show of strength in support of jailed Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal, an OBC leader, with Munde’s supporters also walking along. They alleged that Bhujbal was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and this would never have happened if Munde had been alive.
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen too jumped into the fray, joining the Dalits and OBCs, and demanded that the government work towards setting aside quotas for Muslims if it can consider the same for Marathas.
Besides political machinations, adding to the social tensions was the agrarian crisis in Marathwada, parts of Vidarbha and Khandesh that deepened in 2016, first with a dry spell and then excessive rain, causing massive crop losses and ballooning debts. It was instrumental in pushing the distressed farmers and agricultural labourers, many from the Maratha community in Marathwada, to pour their anguish on the streets.
Senior Congress leader Manikrao Thakre said, “The farmer was the biggest political victim of 2016. Just coming out of a drought, he had to face losses from excessive rainfall and then plummeting prices of his produce due to demonetisation.”
By the end of the year, however, Fadnavis and the BJP had managed to navigate through these fraught situations, including constant pinpricks from ally Shiv Sena, and emerge clear leader in municipal council polls across the state. The Shiv Sena’s MP Sanjay Raut, has, however, that alleged misuse of administrative resources was behind the BJP’s success.
Matters look set to remain fraught in the coming year as 10 major municipal corporations, including Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nagpur, and zilla parishads and panchayat samitis in more than 20 districts go to polls. “The impact of the social polarisation will play out more clearly in rural elections, and we will have to wait and watch how it alters the political scenario in Maharashtra,” Jondhale said.