By Rajdeep Sardesai
While joining journalism 35 years ago in Mumbai, a senior colleague offered advice: “If you really want to witness political drama, you should move to Delhi, in Mumbai nothing much happens except the usual Congress versus Congress battles.” But as the last five years have shown, the country’s political map has altered: no state has seen quite as much turbulence as Maharashtra. Three chief ministers 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.
In keeping with the unexpected twists, a 40 year old pencil thin, relatively unknown serial protestor, Manoj Jarange Patil has suddenly been transformed into the face of the reservation protest. His hunger strike and a clash between his supporters and the police in September have given him enough political equity for almost every state leader to line up to meet him in Jalna, the epicenter of the agitation. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Patil is being propped up by a vengeful opposition to put the Shinde government on the mat. If the BJP used state power, especially the Enforcement Directorate, to bring down the Uddhav Thackeray government, the opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi would be accused of using street power to extract 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 chief ministers (including the incumbent Mr Shinde) have been Marathas; almost every major sugar co-operative, education institute or banking facility in rural Maharashtra is controlled by Marathas.
But this once unchallenged Maratha-centric model of politics and business is disintegrating under its own 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 – himself 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 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 Congress-led governments, Maratha writ was near total, now there is fierce competition amongst 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 for education and government jobs. Ironically, those who once prided themselves on Maratha social superiority are now seeking to re-acquire Kunbi status by tracing their generational roots to old Nizam state records, if only to get reservation benefits. Several thousand Marathas have now applied and been granted Kunbi caste certificates, a sign of how a despairing government is trying to get temporary respite from the gathering storm.
Politically, no party in Maharashtra can afford to ignore the reservation demand since it would mean alienating a substantial vote bank. Chief minister Shinde needs to bolster his credentials as a Maratha leader for his own political survival while deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar knows that any failure to address Maratha concerns will see his uncle Sharad Pawar seize the initiative. The other deputy chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis is also in an unenviable position: a rare Brahmin leader in a non-Brahmin political milieu, he has gone out of his way to endorse Maratha reservations.
But giving reservations is easier said than done. In 2021, a five judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously set aside the 16 per cent quota granted to the Maratha community on various grounds, including breaching the 50% quota limit. A review petition also failed the apex court test earlier this year with the court maintaining that Maratha reservations were unconstitutional. But in 2023, the reservation battle is less about constitutional barriers and more 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 protests till all his demands are met. The instant cult status is enough for him to insist that the Maharashtra government bypass the courts and give Marathas immediate reservation benefits. That the homes of influential legislators are being attacked by furious mobs shows just how the reservation drive has now been hijacked by lumpen elements who have little fear of the law and order machinery. Jarange Patil, in fact, may well be a pawn on an unsettled 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 cash and carry politics has created growing frustration amongst youth groups. When power-hungry leaders have no party or ideological loyalties nor are willing to seriously address core issues like farm incomes, 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 cant be put back in the bottle.