Maratha quota stir is a sign of a state in decline - Hindustan Times
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Maratha quota stir is a sign of a state in decline

Nov 02, 2023 10:35 PM IST

Maharashtra is paying the price for a broken development model where a deepening agrarian crisis and brazen cash-and-carry politics have created frustration

While joining journalism 35 years ago in Mumbai, a senior colleague offered this advice: “If you really want to witness political drama, you should move to Delhi, in Mumbai nothing much happens except routine Congress versus Congress faction fights.” But as the last five years have shown, the country’s political map has altered. No state has seen as much turbulence as Maharashtra. With three chief ministers (CMs) in five years, dramatic party splits and family break-ups, pre-dawn swearing-ins and prolonged legal tussles, Maharashtra hurtles from one chaotic situation to the next. The latest flashpoint is the revival of the Maratha reservation agitation that has turned violent in several parts and threatens to escalate into a full-blown crisis for the Eknath Shinde government.

Protesters during bandh for Maratha reservation. (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Protesters during bandh for Maratha reservation. (HT PHOTO)

In keeping with the unexpected twists, a 40-year-old relatively unknown serial protestor, Manoj Jarange-Patil, has suddenly been transformed into the face of the reservation stir. His hunger strike and a clash between his supporters and the police in Jalna in September have made him an instant cult figure. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Patil is being propped up by a vengeful Opposition to put the Shinde government on the mat. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used state power, especially the Enforcement Directorate, to bring down the Uddhav Thackeray government, the argument goes, the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi is using street power to exact revenge. With both Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections due next year, the stakes could not be higher.

And yet, the Maratha agitation didn’t happen in a vacuum. The tension has been simmering for a while now, a consequence of a state’s polity gradually cracking apart. For the first five post-Independence decades, Maharashtra’s relatively stable politics was marked by a “dominant party” system where all disputes were settled within the large Congress tent. At the heart of this monopolistic politics was Maratha caste supremacy. Twelve of the state’s 19 CMs (including the incumbent, Eknath Shinde) have been Marathas. Almost every major sugar co-operative, education institute or banking facility in rural Maharashtra is controlled by the Marathas.

But this once unchallenged Maratha-centric model of politics and business is disintegrating under its contradictions. While “higher” Marathas claim warrior Kshatriya status, the numerically strong Maratha Kunbis are a backward caste community, largely peasant cultivators. An iconic figure like Shivaji —originally a Kunbi — might be a unifying symbol but the socio-economic ground realities are starkly different. The small group of elite Maratha-Kshatriya families have little “roti-beti” (inter-dining and inter-marriage) relations with their Kunbi brethren, many of whom live on small land-holdings, especially in Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan.

In the post-1947 period, an enlightened Congress leader like YB Chavan was able to hold together a Maratha-led non-Brahmin caste coalition by reaching out to other groups, including Dalits and Muslims. But the rising political and economic clout of the “creamy layer” of Marathas meant that other communities felt increasingly marginalised and even discriminated against.

The BJP’s rise in the 1990s in Maharashtra was driven not just by the appeal of Hindutva but also by a MADHAV social engineering formula, an acronym representing increasingly assertive Mali, Dhangar and Vanjari OBC communities, each seeking greater political empowerment. Whereas in the Congress-led governments, the Maratha writ was near total, now there is fierce competition amongst all caste groups for a share of the power pie.

It is this rivalry for scarce resources that is at the heart of the Maratha reservation battle in education and government jobs. Ironically, those who once emphasised Maratha social hierarchies are now seeking to re-acquire Kunbi status by tracing their generational roots to old Nizam state records, if only to get reservation benefits. Politically, no party in Maharashtra can afford to ignore the demand since it would mean alienating a substantial vote bank. CM Shinde needs to bolster his credentials as a Maratha leader for his political survival while deputy CM Ajit Pawar knows that any failure to address Maratha's concerns will see his uncle Sharad Pawar seize the initiative. The other deputy CM, Devendra Fadnavis, is also in an unenviable position. A rare Brahmin leader in a non-Brahmin political milieu, he had gone out of his way to endorse Maratha reservations as CM.

But granting reservations is easier said than done. In 2021, a five-judge Supreme Court bench unanimously set aside the 16% quota granted to the Maratha community on various grounds, including breaching the 50% quota ceiling. A review petition also failed the apex court test earlier this year with the court maintaining that Maratha reservations were unconstitutional. Now, the reservation battle is less about constitutional limits and more about a no-holds-barred political war. A Jarange Patil-like figure has no place for legal niceties when he threatens to carry on with his hunger strike till all his demands are met. He may well be a pawn on a political chessboard where each leader is out to checkmate the other.

In a sense, Maharashtra is paying the price for a broken development model where a deepening agrarian crisis and brazen cash-and-carry politics have created growing frustration amongst youth groups. When power-hungry leaders have no party or ideological loyalties and are not willing to seriously address core issues like jobs and falling social indices, then the political vacuum will be filled by unapologetic caste and community warriors. For the notion of Maharashtrian asmita (self-respect), which once prided itself on social reform and economic development, the growing chorus for greater reservation is a troubling indicator of a state in steady decline.

Post-script: Most state leaders admit in private that Maratha reservations will eventually invite a backlash from smaller OBC groups who feel threatened. “But not one of us can oppose it publicly because it is election season,” a senior leader confesses. Clearly, once the reservation genie is uncorked, it can’t be put back in the bottle. Maharashtra’s netas are playing with fire.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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