Maratha reservation is back at the centre of politics in Maharashtra
For exactly a week now, Maharashtra has been witnessing violent agitations by Maratha community outfits for the demand of reservation in government jobs and education. The community, which is roughly one-third of the state’s population (32%) is out on streets demanding immediate solution as the 16% reservation granted to it by the government in 2014 is stuck in the court.
This is the second round of the Maratha protests. Over a year ago, the community outfits took out 58 silent marches that were applauded for the disciplined manner in which they were organised. However, this round is violent. Apparently, the outfits that staged the silent marches are not entirely in control of these protests and there is danger of the agitations going berserk as evident from the incidents that took place at Navi Mumbai last week and at Chakan (Pune) this week.
The agitations have put the Maratha reservation issue back at the centre of state politics once again.
Expectedly, the Devendra Fadnavis-led government in the state is getting politically isolated over this issue with its ally Shiv Sena as well as opposition Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) putting responsibility on it for the delay in Marathas getting the reservation. Almost all prominent parties have started deliberations on the issue and are also gauging the impact it will have on them.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is wary of the negative impact the agitation may have on it. As such, the government has been showing patience while handling the agitations and the police have been avoiding using force unless it is absolutely necessary. Fadnavis is trying hard to ensure that Marathas don’t go completely against the BJP. He knows the number of Maratha votes coming their way might be less in 2019 as compared to 2014, but wants to ensure that there is no anti-BJP sentiment among them. At the same time, he is aware that the Marathas becoming more and more aggressive would irk other castes—notably Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes—who may sympathise with the BJP. Some castes within the OBCs were not happy with the BJP in past couple of years but may prefer it as a reaction to aggression shown by Marathas. Several BJP leaders are pointing out that the non-Maratha Hindus are more than 50% in Maharashtra and as such the current situation may not be a bad scenario for their party. What happened with the agitation by Patel-Patidars in neighbouring Gujarat is a case to remember, they say.
The calculations in the opposition camp are different. Marathas form significant part of the support base of the Congress and the NCP. The community played a major role as the Congress (and its offshoot NCP) ruled the state most of the 58 years since 1960 when the state was formed. As such, most of the chief ministers of the state came from that community. Little wonder that both the parties support the demand of the community.
As far as the Congress-NCP are concerned, a large chunk of Maratha votes that went to the BJP-Sena in 2014 due to reasons such as anti-incumbency and Modi wave could come back to them if Marathas get angry with the ruling parties. Marathas along with minorities, Dalits, tribals, and a chunk of OBC could become a formidable combination for the Opposition parties in 2019.
The two parties however are avoiding being much vocal on the issue because they don’t want to antagonise other castes, especially the OBCs. That was why, after the meeting of the legislators on Monday, the Congress demanded that the government should grant reservations to Marathas, Dhangars (Shepherds) and Muslims. That is also the strategy of the Shiv Sena which is supporting the Marathas, but avoiding going over the top. The OBCs and Hindu Dalits form significant support base for the party. While Opposition parties are weighing the calculations as Maratha outfits are resorting to violent protests, many in the ruling BJP are wary of the unease between Fadnavis and his party colleagues in the state cabinet. Fadnavis’ close aides are lamenting that none of the senior ministers are rushing to the chief minister’s defence as he is being targeted by the Maratha outfits. Except revenue minister Chandrakant Patil, most ministers have preferred to keep quiet. The ministers, on the other hand, point out how they are not taken in confidence on key issues and as such they prefer not to speak on any issues unless they are asked to.
So, what will be the impact of the Maratha unrest? Nobody knows for sure.