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By: Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal
A desperate move on the part of the Congress-NCP coalition government in Maharashtra to extend the benefits of caste-based reservations to the dominant caste of Marathas in education and employment, actually symbolises a major crisis that has loomed large in the politics of the state for quite some time now. On the one hand, it is a crisis of the fading Congress system in the state that once presided over a neat and institutionalised system of patronage, successful accommodation of the entrenched interests and favorable caste equations under the leadership of the dominant Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster. It is also a crisis for the polarised party system of the state that invariably keeps chasing the numerically preponderant (Maratha-Kunbis together constitute roughly 32 per cent of the state’s population) Maratha vote for its political survival. But, most importantly, the move to extend reservations for Marathas points to a serious crisis for the Maratha identity that has led the caste to undertake a backward journey for itself.
Maharashtra is in election mode this year. After its complete wipeout in the Lok Sabha elections in May, the ruling alliance of the Congress and NCP needs to brace itself for the state assembly elections scheduled for later this year. The outcome of the Lok Sabha elections was disastrous for the Congress and NCP as they could secure only six of the 48 seats and faced a 5 per cent drop in their combined vote share since Lok Sabha elections in 2009. The “grand alliance” of the BJP-Shiv Sena and the other smaller parties clinched more than half of the total votes (51 per cent) and emerged as clear winners in the race.
One of the main stories behind the Congress alliance’s defeat in Maharashtra is the fragmentation of the Maratha vote over the past decade. As per the National Election Studies data, 52 per cent of the Maratha-Kunbi voters had supported the Congress-NCP alliance in 1999. The percentage came down to 39 in the latest round of Lok Sabha elections, in which more than half of the Maratha-Kunbi voters favoured the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance instead of the Congress. The drift of the Maratha votes not only sealed the fate of the Congress alliance in the recent elections but also symbolised a serious erosion of the Congress space in the state’s politics. Reservations to Marathas thus come as a part of desperate attempts at political survival by the two Congress parties.
The Maratha leaders, on the other hand, asserted their claims of backwardness when the power of the community weakened in several ways as politics became more competitive. It made political recruitment more difficult for the Marathas. At continued…