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On a backward journey

Maharashtra government’s proposal of reservations for Marathas points to the crisis of a fading Congress system.

Reservations in public sector employment do not count much for the Marathas in western Maharashtra from where the NCP draws its support base. Reservations in public sector employment do not count much for the Marathas in western Maharashtra from where the NCP draws its support base.

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 the local level, they had to share power with the Dalits and OBCs after the implementation of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. In the post-Mandal era, many new players like caste associations of each small caste entered the political realm. Political contestations became more dispersed and localised in nature. The local, social support bases of Maratha leaders became more floating as the established patronage networks were eroded. These changes seriously jeopardised the status of Marathas as a ruling community and injured their sense of pride.

This scenario culminated in the politics of outrage on the one hand, and on the other, led to desperate assertions of backwardness of the community. In the last few years, Maharashtra has witnessed a series of violent outbursts over symbolic issues of cultural pride by the angry and frustrated Maratha youth. Strangely, the aggressive politics of cultural symbolism survived amidst demands of reservations that were linked to the material frustrations of sections of the Marathas.

The Congress-Maratha nexus of the past was a combination of political majority and ascendant material interests. Institutional networks like cooperatives and economic policies of the state that advocated capitalist growth in the agrarian sector, protected Maratha interests in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. However, as the Marathas were economically stratified, these mechanisms benefited only the elite Marathas. Besides, these mechanisms collapsed when Maharashtra pursued an aggressive agenda of economic liberalisation since 1988 under Sharad Pawar’s leadership. The agenda neglected rural and agrarian interests and advocated export-oriented commercialisation of agriculture that benefited only a few. The already existing economic disparities among sections of the Marathas widened during this period when the hegemonic discourse of “Bahujan Samaj”, which celebrated the leadership of the Marathas, had already elapsed. Unfortunately, many Maratha families remained trapped in the agricultural sector and could not find adequate access to urban resources for various reasons.

This is more true of regions like Marathwada,which has remained economically backward thanks to the regional economic disparities and to the excessive concentration of capital in the urban centres of western Maharashtra. The demand for reservations to the Marathas gained widespread support mainly in this area where theMarathas also have a strong numerical presence. The Congress and NCP have pinned their hopes on this region for favourable electoral reversals in the upcoming assembly elections. However, it is difficult to estimate whether and to what extent Maratha reservations would save the two Congress parties and the Marathas. First of all, it is highly likely that this hasty decision will not survive the test of law.

In spite of the intricate arguments of the Rane committee that investigated and established the backwardness of the Marathas, the community is not socially and educationally backward as per the criteria set by the Mandal Commission. But it seems that at the moment the two Congress parties are more interested in the immediate political gains from the decision. Even these gains are circumscribed by at least two factors. Reservations in public sector employment do not count much for the Marathas in western Maharashtra from where the NCP draws its support base. In Marathwada, on the other hand, the battle for reservations has given rise to many local aspirants to power who may challenge and complicate the claims of the established leadership in winning over the Marathas. Most importantly, with the shrinking public sector employment in the state and with the mostly defunct educational system churning out entrants to the job market who are devoid of skills, the reservation discourse will benefit the poor Marathas only in a limited way and the deeper issue of the fracture between the so-called Maratha elite and the lay Maratha will still remain.

The idea of social justice that the reservation discourse once symbolised will further weaken as dominant castes like the Marathas begin their backward journey.

Deshpande teaches politics at the University of Pune. Birmal teaches at Dr Ambedkar College in Pune

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