Will Maratha reservation be the linchpin in Maharashtra politics?

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis can now breathe a sigh of relief. It has been reported that the Maharashtra State Backward Commission submitted its report on whether the Marathas could be considered belonging to OBC (other backward class) category, on 15th November. According to the report, Marathas are backward on three counts – social, educational and economical.

The Maratha reservation issue has been a long drawn out one in Maharashtra. It has also been attracting a lot of attention because of its possible effect on the upcoming 2019 elections (both Lok Sabha and State Assembly in Maharashtra). So how does this reservation issue affect the 2019 elections?

There has been no caste census in India since 1932 and the 2011 census only tried to estimate the OBC population in the country. Hence, there are no accurate figures of the Maratha population in Maharashtra who are fighting for reservation. Different reports quote their share of the population ranging from 32 per cent to 35 per cent. Nevertheless, this undetermined figure is enough to understand why the issue of Maratha reservation has the potential to be a game changer.

The Marathas were placed in the category of Forward Hindu Castes and Communities by the Mandal Commission Report as implemented in 1990. Of the three government reports in the past 2 decades, two reports the National Commission for Backward Classes Report, 2000 and the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission report, 2008, rejected the Maratha claim for OBC status. In 2014 however, a committee headed by the then Industry Minister of Maharashtra, Narayan Rane rejected the previous reports. Based on the committee’s recommendations an ordinance was passed in June 2014 granting 16 per cent reservation for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions. This was later shot down by the Bombay High Court two weeks after the BJP led NDA government came into power in the state.

Taking into account the timing of such a move made by the Prithviraj Chavan government in 2014, it is safe to say that this was done to grab a few last-minute votes before the 2014 state assembly elections. Looking back at how the Congress-led UPA government faired in the targeted elections, it is clear that this move didn’t have the desired effect among the Marathas.

The Maratha votes were scattered across the four main parties. The Congress managed to get only 11 per cent while the BJP and Shiv Sena managed 24 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. The Sharad Pawar led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) did better than its ally and secured 17 per cent.

These numbers bring about the big question as to what happened to Maratha politics. The repeated success of Congress in Maharashtra since independence is partially due to strong appeal among the dominant Maratha Caste. But this association has been dwindling over the years.

A 2014 Economic and Political Weekly paper titled ‘Farewell to Maratha Politics?’ authored by Suhas Palshikar from Savitribai Phule Pune University, talks about how the split among Maratha leaders first happened when Sharad Pawar, after falling out with Sonia Gandhi formed the NCP. Around this time Maratha leaders also started aligning themselves with the Shiv Sena and BJP. The Congress party was never able to regain its dominant position since the BJP-Shiv Sena government came to power in 1995. They along with the NCP always scraped through the elections and this decline was merely sealed in 2014.

This split of the Maratha votes has made it less possible for any one party or coalition to rake in the benefits of the reservation issue. Adding to this is the lack of clear leadership among the Marathas. The Maratha Kranti Morcha is only an umbrella organization of all the Maratha organizations spread across the state. The leaders, however, belong to different political parties.

The man leading the cause and mobilizing the Marathas, Pravin Gaikwad, is in fact not aligned to any political party. He is one of the Maratha leaders who is the state president of the Sambhaji Brigade, known to have an unparalleled connect among his people. His ideology represents a ‘progressive’ brand of Maratha politics, not aligned with the ‘Hindutva’ ideology of the BJP or Shiv Sena. He is also unlikely to form any ties with the Congress-NCP alliance as his community has lost confidence in them because, despite having a majority of Maratha leaders, they didn’t do much for Maratha reservation. There are however no talks of him forming a new party ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

Even though the commission, headed by retired Justice N G Gaikwad has found the Marathas to be backward, the report has to now stand legal scrutiny in the High Court. There is also the issue of how much quota to give the Marathas as the report does not specify the same. Moreover, Maharashtra has already exceeded the 50 per cent cap set by the Supreme Court in 1992 on reservations, so an addition to the existing reservation might require a constitutional amendment. It remains to be seen how the BJP is going to tackle these issues.

Currently, the BJP holds the greatest number of seats in the Maharashtra state assembly and the Maharashtra Lok Sabha seats, followed by the Shiv Sena. On the other hand, the Congress and the NCP suffered a huge loss in the 2014 state and general elections. They now together hold 83 seats in the state assembly out of the total 288 seats, and a measly 6 out of the 48 seats the state contributes to the Lok Sabha. The splitting of the Maratha votes and lack of clear leadership among the Maratha organizations, favour BJP in the upcoming elections. Adding to these factors is now the positive outcome of the report for the Marathas. Hence the reservation issue is unlikely to cause a change in the current landscape of Maharashtra politics.

Anaka Harish is a Research Intern at CPPR, working on Indian General Elections 2019. 

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