Maratha quota row: BJP's attempt to placate socially dominant caste may eat away from its traditional vote bank

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Maharashtra is playing with multiple fires. And these fires are not restricted to the state but also have the capacity to singe the BJP elsewhere. On one hand, various communities have agitated for reservations since this government came to power in 2014. On the other, those in the general category or already in the quota list have resented their share getting reduced.

The Sangh parivar has been aware of hardening of stance and growing cynicism over reservations on both sides of the divide on the issue. There is particular disenchantment among the upper castes, whose hopes soared after RSS called for review of the reservations policy in 2015. In recent months, the saffron fold has been on the horns of a dilemma on rising apathy towards it among upper castes.

Mohan Bhagwat's recent call to his cadre to campaign against NOTA for it benefits the "available worst" instead of electing the "available best" is indicative of the extent of the parivar's worry of losing support of traditional voters.

His worry stems from significant sections of savarns or upper castes turning cynical of politics over reservations. In addition, they have joined forces with OBCs in several states in opposing the amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

For protesters, overturning the Supreme Court judgment despite strong evidence of misuse of the law to target non-Dalits was little but another form of 'politics of appeasement'.

File image of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

File image of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

Upper castes traditionally backed BJP and in recent years, the party made inroads among significant OBC sub-castes. Despite remaining core BJP supporters, as Bhagwat's campaign demonstrates, they have increasingly exhibited signs of opting for NOTA because of disinterest in voting for a party 'placating' Dalits.

Upper caste concern would also rise post Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis' announcement that Marathas would have reason to cheer up this 1 December. In the likelihood of the chief minister fulfilling his assurance of providing reservations to Marathas over and above what is already being given to other castes, it would infuriate the upper caste because this significantly shrinks the 'general' quota.  This could be extremely damaging to the BJP in 2019 and in the impending state elections, especially in constituencies witnessing tight contests.

It is a different matter that his regime may not be able to deliver what has been promised. Yet, in an election season, it is likely to be considered as another instance of the BJP pursuing the politics of pacification like the Congress.

The only difference being that instead of minorities, the BJP will be seen cultivating new vote banks who are 'challenging and marginalising' upper castes. Its impact has the potential of spreading beyond Maharashtra and becoming widespread nationally, as a reaction to the amendment to the SC/ST Act showed.

The BJP is armed with the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission's recommendation that Marathas are socio-economically backward and meet all parameters for being accorded backward class status.

The MSBCC report shows that the percentage of Marathas who are either below the poverty line, have small and marginal land-holdings or even live in mud-dwellings is more than the base necessary to be entitled to reservations. Savarns argue that many among them are similarly placed.

The announcement will also anger Dalits in Maharashtra for they have been at loggerheads and at the receiving end of Marathas for long, and are opposed to the dominant community being extended the same privilege. The BJP's problems are compounded by sections of Marathas being resentful of Dalits and other beneficiaries of reservations as they have acquired economic and political clout.

The Fadnavis government declared it does not intend to include Marathas in the existing OBC list and instead make special provisions beyond the constitutionally permissible 50 percent cap.

However, any such legislative move will unquestionably face legal and judicial challenge. Presently in Maharashtra, 52 percent reservation is already being provided to SCs, STs, OBCs and VJNTs (Vimukta Jati and Nomadic tribes). After 16 percent reservation for Marathas, the general category will decline from 48 to 32 percent, which will further infuriate them.

The Marathas too will watch the situation keenly before extending support to the BJP in the state, now facing a resurgent Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. In 2014, the Congress-NCP government extended 16 percent reservation to Marathas through a hurriedly issued Ordinance.

This was struck down by the Bombay High Court after the Fadnavis government assumed office. Marathas could also conclude that this is another election gimmick like the Congress-NCP decision in 2014.

There is a possibility that the Fadnavis government may add its law granting reservations for Marathas in the Ninth Schedule of Constitution, sparing it of judicial scrutiny. This a double whammy for two reasons. First off, it will annoy OBCs already availing benefit of reservations, Dalits, as well as the upper caste because socially dominant Marathas will be further empowered.

Secondly, inclusion in Ninth Schedule is a risky proposition as the apex court in 2007 held that no blanket immunity can be provided by inserting new laws in this Schedule in the Constitution.

Besides Maharashtra, the issue of dominant castes seeking reservation citing economic and educational backwardness has dominated political agenda in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Haryana too. There is no knowing when this issue will surface in other states as competition increases for a share of the shrinking pie.

The Fadnavis government's announcement will give fresh impetus to the Patel stir in Gujarat and the demand of Jats in Haryana. As the anti-Patel stir in Gujarat backed by the significant Thakor community showed, every pro-reservation agitation has spawned a counter.

The BJP government in Rajasthan, with an eye on the impending polls, issued orders in July, making five castes, including Gujjars, eligible to receive reservations under the OBC category. Its impact will be tested in the Assembly polls.

Since 2014, the BJP has failed to grapple with socially dominant castes in various states willing to 'climb down' the social ladder with the objective of securing reservations and consequently recovering their economic and political clout.

The issue of reservations is multi-layered and after having made a brave beginning to discuss the issue in totality, the Sangh parivar too has opted to act only when faced with a crisis.

The manner in which the scenario unfolds in Maharashtra will significantly shape political and electoral narrative in the coming months.

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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2018 16:35:45 IST

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