Quotas in Maharashtra can lead to more unrest
Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, has hinted that his government might announce reservation for the Maratha community. One will have to wait for the exact details of such a policy and see whether it stands the test of judicial scrutiny. Having said that, the script is not very different from how governments have reacted to agitations demanding reservations in the past.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government announced Other Backward Class (OBC) status for Jats, a dominant peasant community in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, months before the 2014 elections. The previous Congress-Nationalist Congress party government in Maharashtra had also announced reservations for Marathas and Muslims just before assembly elections. Both were struck down by the courts.
Communities such as Marathas, Jats, Patidars — all of which have been demanding reservations — have historically been the dominant peasant group in their respective regions. This also means that they are politically influential.
Their younger generation, however, has seen a decline in economic fortunes mainly due to the systemic agrarian distress which has characterised the Indian economy in the post-reform period. The fact that their peers from OBCs and Scheduled Castes, even if they are small, might have attained greater upward mobility due to reservations has given traction to the belief that reservations are the best route to revive their fortunes.
By announcing reservations, the BJP might be aiming to secure the support of Marathas in the state. However, the gains from such a policy need not be as straightforward as they seem, both for the Marathas and the BJP.
The share of the public sector in both jobs and employment has been gradually declining in India. This will eventually diminish the ability of reservations to guarantee upward mobility. Granting reservations to the Marathas in Maharashtra might also catalyse similar agitations by the Jats and Patidars in BJP ruled states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat. How other communities react to the policy within Maharashtra is another potential fault line.
The fundamental question which needs to be asked in judging how governments should respond to such agitations is different. Should they continue to support communities which have faced historical discrimination, or is it all right to extend them to groups who have fallen on hard times due to the inequalities which have come as a side effect of India’s ongoing growth process? The founding fathers of our Constitution treated the former as the main criterion for awarding such benefits.