Bombay HC upholds Maratha quota: BJP, Shiv Sena snatch issue from Congress, NCP ahead of state polls

In a historic verdict, the Bombay High Court on Thursday upheld the constitutional validity of the Maharashtra government's bill that provides a separate quota in government jobs and educational institutions for Marathas under a new category: "Socially and economically backward" .

The nod for the reservation, which is over and above the Supreme Court ceiling of 50 percent, is set to have far-reaching implications in the caste politics of Maharashtra. State elections are due in October and Marathas constitute roughly a third of the electorate.

Although the high court directed the state to slash the proposed 16 percent reservation to the community to 12 percent in education and 13 percent in government appointments — something that might get stuck at the Supreme Court as the petitioners have announced their decision to appeal against the verdict, leaders of the ruling Bharatiy Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine were in a jubilant mood and took full credit for the "success".

With his trademark smile, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis informed the Legislative Assembly — the Monsoon Session of which is underway — of the verdict. "It is a matter of happiness that the high court has upheld my government's decision. I thank political parties and Maratha organisations for their support to the government over the issue," he said.

Fadnavis garlanded the idol of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the 17th Century Maratha warrior king, in the Vidhan Bhavan kicking off state-wide celebrations. He also plans to appeal in the Supreme Court to restore the 16 percent quota proposal.

 Bombay HC upholds Maratha quota: BJP, Shiv Sena snatch issue from Congress, NCP ahead of state polls

File image of Maratha community members holding a protest rally. PTI

The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the two main Opposition parties, had no option but to hail the verdict. After all, the controversial quota was their own brainchild born exactly five years ago.

It was the Congress-NCP Government that had for the first time approved the 16 percent reservation for the politically-dominant Maratha community and five percent reservation to Muslims in July 2014. The ordinance was brought hurriedly after both outfits faced a severe drubbing in the Lok Sabha election of April/May 2014. It was timed with the Assembly election in October the same year. The UPA allies lost the polls though and their ordinance didn't hold up to legal scrutiny later.

The demand for Maratha reservation was first mooted in the 1980s. In 1992, the Maratha Mahasangh had made a representation to the state government to provide reservation to the community. The NCP was the first party that had promised to provide reservation to the community in its 2009 election manifesto. The Maratha agitation, it may be recalled, had been fueled by NCP and Congress leaders for years.

"Due to half-baked policies and a lack of commitment, the Congress-NCP lost the game to its rivals," said Virendra Pawar, head of the Sakal Maratha Samaj, a prominent group working for the quota since 1990. When asked about losing a prominent issue to its rivals, NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik claimed, "The demand for the quota was ongoing for the past 25 years. Our move was never intended for electoral gains."

Sachin Sawant, Congress spokesperson stated, "It is good that the BJP-Sena has fulfilled our promise. However, its hypocrisy is obvious as it claims 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas' but deny reservation to Muslims."

Waris Pathan, AIMIM MLA alleges that the Congress-NCP and Sena-BJP are two faces of the same coin. "We welcome the Maratha quota, but condemn the government's stand against the Muslim quota. Our socioeconomic backwardness was revealed by the Sachar Commission and the Bombay High Court had also approved a quota for the community in education. The Congress-NCP only exploited the community for poll gains. Had they brought a law instead of an ordinance, Muslims would have also got reservation today."

Fadnavis' calculated steps

Since the BJP came to power in October 2014 and selected a Brahmin face — Devendra Fadnavis — to lead the state, the party focused on Marathas who constitute one third of the state's population and have largely been supporting the Congress and NCP.

A senior BJP leader said, "The Mali, Dhangar and Vanjari communities have been rallying behind the BJP since the days of Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan. With the Brahmins and upper castes with us, the Marathas were our next target to weaken the opponents. The lapse of the July 2014 ordinance provided the hotbed for it."

To encash the issue and claim it as his own, Fadnavis, within weeks of taking office, constituted a committee headed by minister Vinod Tawde to carry forth the momentum and gather evidence about the educational and social backwardness of the Marathas.

By December 2014, Fadnavis came out with an Act to provide reservation for the community and carefully dropped the Muslim quota demand, although the Bombay High Court had ruled in its favour. The Act did not stand up to the scrutiny of the court for the same reason: A lack of credible evidence, but it helped the government to show its commitment for the cause.

Ever since then, Fadnavis and other BJP-Sena leaders left no stone unturned to blame the Congress-NCP for exploiting the issue for electoral gains but not making a law to actually help the community. Meanwhile, the Fadnavis government sought the help of the State Backward Class Commission to dig up evidence of the backwardness of Marathas and then came out with an Act in November 2018. This helped the government to project itself as more serious and credible compared to its predecessors as far as this emotive issue was concerned.

The delay in bringing a law for Maratha quota kept the pot boiling. "Meanwhile, we managed to win several local body bodies in western Maharashtra and Marathwada, which were held by the Congress-NCP for a long time thanks to its strong base among Marathas," said Prem Shukla, BJP spokesperson.

The party then strategised to woo the leaders spearheading the Maratha issue. For instance, Vinayak Mete, who heads Shiv Sangram, was elected to the Legislative Council in 2016 with the BJP's support. He was also made chairman of a committee formed to oversee the construction of the grand Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea.

Meanwhile, the BJP-Sena gradually began to wrest control of the sugar, milk and bank cooperatives, dominated by the Maratha leaders of the Congress-NCP earlier. Shukla said, "We worked really hard to dismantle the Maratha leadership of the Congress and NCP that dominated powerful cooperative societies."

The Congress' Sawant however alleged that it was the coercive action of the BJP that resulted the Congress-NCP's loosening grip on cooperatives.

Due to the saffron party's massive caste outreach ahead of Lok Sabha elections, nearly all numerically strong castes have left the Congress-NCP for the saffron parties in the time between 2015 and 2019.

The NCP lost its state vice-president Bharti Pawar and young leaders Ranjitsinh Mohite-Patil and Rahul Shewale to the BJP. Senior Congress member Ranjitsinh Naik-Nimbalkar and the son of Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, Sujay Vikhe-Patil, also defected to the BJP and won the Madha and Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seats respectively.

The Congress and NCP could only win one and four Lok Sabha seats respectively out of 48 in Maharashtra.

The BJP-Sena's vigour to expand its base among Marathas has increased. Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, who was the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, was poached by the BJP recently dealing a major blow to the Opposition.

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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2019 23:55:27 IST