Maharashtra Assembly passes Maratha quota bill: Why Devendra Fadnavis had no option but to give in
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis could do little to put off submitting to the Maratha reservation demand with no support on his side, an increasing toll from suicides and the elections around the corner.
The Maratha community in Maharashtra has reason to rejoice. The state government has finally buckled to its immense pressure and passed the Maratha reservation bill on Thursday, granting the community 16 percent quota in government jobs and education institutes, as per the recommendations of the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission.
The Maharashtra Legislative Assembly passed the bill unanimously without discussion, amid chants of "Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki jai", after which it was approved in the Legislative Council. The Maratha community will surely also be pleased with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' gesture of paying tribute and seeking the blessings of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj before introducing the legislation in the Lower House. Whether this was a photo opportunity and political gimmick, or a truly heartfelt gesture by the Brahmin chief minister, one can only guess.
Unemployment was one of the major factors that triggered the demand for reservation for Marathas as a backward class in Maharashtra. The demand only gained ground with time, even after recommendations to grant this quota was rejected on three separate occasions.
In recent months, among the major demands of the Maratha community have been: reservation for the community at the earliest, withdrawal of all cases against Maratha protesters, action against police officers responsible for firing and lathi-charging protester during the 25 July agitation and sacking of MLAs who made irresponsible statements against the Maratha community.
Here's why Fadnavis eventually buckled under the pressure from the politically-influential section:
For one, Fadnavis was fighting a lone battle against the protesting Marathas. No one who wishes to be a name in Maharashtra politics would dare to stand up to the powerful group — who make up 32 percent of the state's population — and support Fadnavis in opposing the reservation demand. His own party leaders abandoned him, including Maharashtra BJP president Raosaheb Danve and state cabinet minister Pankaja Munde. While Danve, a prominent Maratha, did next to nothing to help the chief minister, Munde made matters worse by saying would have cleared the proposal for reservation within an hour of receiving a report on it.
The demand for Maratha quota gained momentum in July, and at the forefront of this agitation was the Maratha Kranit Morcha (MKM). Buoyed by support from the community, the group held silent protests, which often turned violent, and threatened several shutdowns unless the state took a concrete call on their demands.
Alone in the line of fire, Fadnavis was forced to call a meeting where state leaders put their heads together to find a solution. In July end, he announced that the government would call for a special Assembly session to discuss granting reservation for Marathas, and that he would urge the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission to table its report on the quota at the earliest, which it finally did on 15 November, declaring the Marathas socially and economically backward and recommending 16 percent reservation for the community under the Other Backward Classes category.
In addition to these, Fadnavis also announced that Marathas would get 16 percent of the 72,000 jobs in the recruitment drive the Maharashtra government was going to launch, but none of these measures pacified the community, which remained steadfast and the protests continued.
In August, not long after statewide agitations broke out over the demand for reservation for the Maratha community, the Maharashtra government announced that it was ready to consider the demand. Fadnavis said state leaders signed a joint resolution on this front, and that the government "stands in absolute support for Maratha reservation".
Despite Fadnavis' assurances that the state was looking at providing legally and constitutionally sustainable reservation to Marathas and also requesting time till November to reach a decision, pro-quota groups kept up their protests, which only took a turn for the worse as people from the community began to commit suicide over the demand for quota. Till September, at least seven Marathas killed themselves over the demand for reservation, adding to the pressure on Fadnavis. Naturally, no chief minister would want to be held responsible for such loss of life.
Parties in the state didn't help matters either.
All major political parties in the state are in favour of Maratha reservation, as once again, no outfit wanted to draw the ire of the politically-dominant community in Maharashtra.
At least eight MLAs quit over the demand, and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray accused Fadnavis of "misleading" Marathas over reservation in the recruitment drive.
Any support from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress was also out of question as the previous NCP-Congress government in Maharashtra, too, had announced 16 percent reservation for Marathas in June 2014, months before the Maharashtra Assembly polls — along with 5 percent quota for Muslims — but the Bombay High Court had stayed the decision in November that year.
The BJP naturally would hope that favouring Maratha reservation would work in its own favour in the 2019 polls. But the move could risk alienating other OBCs as well as Dalits and Muslims, who have also been raising their voices for higher reservation in Maharashtra. This is a different kind of pressure for Fadnavis though.
It would be laughable to expect the Shiv Sena to oppose any such cause, given that it has always been a champion of the Maratha cause. At the height of the protests demanding reservation, the BJP ally in the state urged the government to announce the quota without waiting for the state panel's report.
If the Union Cabinet approves the Maratha reservation bill, and Parliament approves expanding the groups under OBCs, the total extent of reservation in Maharashtra would be 68 percent. This puts a likely legal hurdle in Fadnavis and the Maharashtra government's path, given the Supreme Court's 50 percent cap on quota for any community, and would only add another thorn in his side.
But with no support on his side, an increasing toll from suicides and the elections around the corner, Fadnavis could do little to put off submitting to the Maratha demand.
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