HC quashing stay on Maratha reservations comes at opportune moment for BJP-Shiv Sena govt in Maharashtra

Nagpur: The judgment last week by the Bombay High Court quashing a petition to stay reservations for the Maratha community in education and jobs comes at a crucial juncture.

The Maharashtra Assembly election is due later this year. And the high court decision gives a political fillip to the BJP and particularly Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis ahead of the polls since the perception has been created that it will benefit aspiring students from the community in education if not jobs, in the current academic year.

A division bench of Justices Bharati Dangre and Ranjit More last week refused to quash reservation of seats in educational institutions in the state and for appointments to public services and posts under the State (for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes) [SEBC Act], 2018. The only alteration to the state's position has been the quantum of the reservation: The high court made it 12 percent in jobs and 13 percent in education as against the government's provision of 16 percent.

In July 2014, the Maharashtra government passed an ordinance providing for 16 percent reservation for the Marathas. It was challenged before the Bombay High Court, which had then passed an interim order staying the implementation of the ordinance. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the challenge.

When the high court again stayed the 'Educationally and Socially Backward Category' (ESBC) Act in April 2017 saying the ESBC Act and the ordinance providing for Maratha reservation were identical, the state government constituted the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission. The body recommended reservation in favour of the Maratha community in its report forming the basis of the SEBC Act, 2018.

 HC quashing stay on Maratha reservations comes at opportune moment for BJP-Shiv Sena govt in Maharashtra

File image of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

The Act was challenged before the high court since it raised reservations in the state from the existing 52 percent to 68 percent. It was argued that the Maratha reservation would affect the seats in the general pool of candidates and that it was an attempt by political parties to appease the Marathas.

But the high court this time around upheld the state government's views saying that while previously there was no quantifiable basis to prove the community's socioeconomic backwardness, now there is enough clear evidence of a "gradual deterioration in educational and social backwardness of Marathas" and "deterioration in income as well as the desperation of families to survive".

It wasn't easy navigating through the tricky political issue of reservation to Marathas, given the long and chequered history of the issue, but the Fadnavis government has managed to work around it to its advantage.

Fadnavis used the silent protests by the Maratha community in 2016 first by engaging the protesters in a dialogue, then by subtly dividing them on the possible line of action, and lastly by pitting them against the larger rubric of the OBCs, which have been the BJP and Shiv Sena's main support base.

The OBCs have been at odds with the government's position on reservations to Marathas, but the Fadnavis government's contention has been that the special category quota does not infringe upon the existing statutory reservations. The upper castes, even if they are opposed to the raising of the quota and the perception that their open category space will eventually shrink, won't desert the BJP or Sena in the immediate future — which means that while there would be a social fallout in the long term, there is no political fallout of this decision in the foreseeable future.

If anything, the Maratha reservation issue only seems to politically benefit the incumbent, as the results of the 2017 local body elections and the 2019 General Election indicated. The BJP and Sena swept the elections in urban bodies and made huge inroads into traditional Congress-NCP bastions.

The quota to the Marathas divides the community on the lines of the age. That is to say that young voters from within the community are largely seen to be backing the Fadnavis government. This could only dent an already weakened NCP and Congress; mainly the former, which is seen as a party dominated and supported by the Maratha community. It is this character of the Opposition that has seen the OBCs and lower caste Hindus gravitate towards the BJP and the Sena over the past two-and-a-half decades. With Maratha reservation, the state's caste fractures are wide open and the BJP stands to gain most, particularly in the Assembly polls. This has been the BJP's ploy for a long time.

It has been over 30 years since the BJP began rallying for reservations to the Koshti community (weavers) in eastern Vidarbha, or to Dhangars all over Maharashtraa — the political demand of their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list can't be constitutionally met. The BJP has cleverly roped in several such caste groups that formed the lower strata of the OBCs in not only Maharashtra but across India, giving them power at the local self-help bodies and pitting them against the entrenched Maratha leadership.

The BJP began by promising them reservations and turning them against the Dalits and Adivasis, the two major vote bases of the Congress, and mobilising them in its favour. Subsequently, it fielded a barrage of new leaders from these small and seemingly inconsequential caste groups at the local bodies. Now, even the young and emerging Maratha leadership is revolting against the NCP-Congress' Maratha leadership that is entrenched in the family or cooperative institutions.

The reservation in jobs may not really be of any help in the long term since government jobs are few and far between, but it creates a perception of the state government delivering on its promise for social and economic justice. It may help some with higher education that is increasingly becoming expensive. Even if the Act passed by the state legislature is challenged and quashed by the Supreme Court in the future, the move will have achieved the political goal, if not its long term social and economic objective.

The state government quickly moved the Supreme Court to file a caveat in case someone challenged — and there are social groups that will challenge the move — the high court verdict in the apex court.

The Congress and the NCP are confronted by a situation where on the one hand, their core voter base from within the Maratha community stands breached; on the other hand, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Dr Prakash Ambedkar looks to eat into its other social base.

The outcome of the elections to local body, Assembly and Parliament between 2014 and 2019 shows that the well-ensconced Maratha leadership of the NCP and Congress faces antipathy from the emerging new leadership from within the lower strata of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims in several pockets of the state. The Maratha quota issue is a double whammy for the Opposition, unless the two parties are open to sharing power at different layers with the impatient new OBC-Dalit-Muslim leadership.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 12:34:54 IST