Maratha vs OBC: Maharashtra walks the caste tightrope to 2019 polls

Ever since the Maratha protests turned violent last month, concerted efforts of all political parties to keep the protesting Maratha groups happy without upsetting other backward castes have come into sharp focus.
The Maratha agitation has put the government on tenterhooks.(Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)
The Maratha agitation has put the government on tenterhooks.(Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)
Updated on Aug 11, 2018 06:18 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Mumbai | ByKetaki Ghoge, Mumbai

Ahead of the 2019 polls, Maharashtra’s caste cauldron is already on the boil. Since the Maratha protests turned violent last month, what has come into sharp focus are the concerted efforts of all political parties to keep the protesting Maratha groups happy, but without upsetting other backward castes (OBCs).

Two days before the Maratha protests on August 9, the National Other Backward Class Federation, an umbrella body of OBC groups in the country, held its third meet in Mumbai. It was inaugurated by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and attended by senior political leaders across the party spectrum. The meet marked a shift: OBC leaders are no longer supportive of the Maratha reservation.

“We are not opposed to the reservation to Marathas as long as it does not touch our quota. But, at the same time if Marathas are being given 16%, then we will demand that our quota should increase to 52% in sync with our population,” said Babanrao Tayade, a Nagpur-based educationist who heads the federation. Former Andhra Pradesh high court judge and chairperson of the federation, V Eshwariah, was blunter: “Jats, Patels and Marathas have started agitating and under pressure, the governments are accepting their demands. What is the constitutional validity of this reservation? On what grounds do they meet the social backwardness criteria?”

At least last two state backward class commissions and three central backward class commissions have rejected the Maratha claim of being backward. The community adds up to 32% of Maharashtra’s population and while some sections have been hit by agrarian distress, it remains socially-dominant.

Flexing the Maratha muscle

OBCs, fragmented into nearly 382 castes, make up nearly 52% of Maharashtra’s population. While the community does not vote en bloc, the Maratha agitation could consolidate some groups into voting against the parties that favour Marathas over OBCs.

This is why political parties are walking a tightrope. Fadnavis at this convention accepted the OBC groups demand that the backlog of government jobs for the community be filled in a time-bound manner. Two days prior to the convention, in a bid to appease the Maratha community, the Chief Minister had stayed the entire recruitment drive for 72,000 jobs.

Until mid-November when the Backward Class commission report on Maratha reservation gets submitted, political parties will continue the tightrope walk.

So, even as state Congress president Ashok Chavan said the issue of reservation should not be politicised, an OBC leader from his own party, Vijay Wadettiwar, said, “If such a reservation has to be granted, the BJP government will have to amend the Constitution. Under existing parameters, the community does not fulfil the parameters for reservation.” On the other hand, while Fadnavis has promised the OBC quota would not be affected by the percentage demanded by the Marathas, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president Raosaheb Danve has claimed that Marathas from Marathwada were historically an OBC.

If the Maratha outfits still go against the BJP, the party will look to consolidate the OBC vote in 2019. A similar approach helped the party in the Gujarat assembly polls in 2017 when the Patels went against the BJP. While the Marathas have not been loyal BJP voters, they did vote for the party in 2014.

BJP’s official party line is that they will be fighting polls on the development plank and that caste politics is a side effect. “Caste polarization happens in every election in the country. But we are committed to fighting polls on social and development plank. Overall, I think there is a consensus that OBCs should not be affected and Marathas should get reservation benefits in education and jobs,” said state rural development minister and BJP’s OBC leader, Pankaja Munde.

However, party leaders are keenly aware of the complex caste politics in which BJP finds itself. “One can accommodate the reservation demand for Marathas by including them in OBC special category, but then we will have to address the demand for Dhangars (shepherds) to be accommodated into scheduled tribes category and the OBCs’ demand for more quota. There is no quick win here for anyone,” said a BJP minister requesting anonymity.

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