For nearly three months, Maharashtra has been witnessing a thus far unseen occurrence: Hundreds of thousands of people gather, a march begins, there’s no sloganeering, the crowd walks in complete silence and the gathering ends with handing over of a memorandum to a local government official before it disperses.
So far, 40 such silent rallies have taken place across the state. Organisers call it the Maratha Kranti Morcha (Maratha Revolution Rally). All 40 rallies have had just three demands: Hang those who raped and killed a 14-year Maratha girl in a gruesome incident that took place recently; bring the Maratha community under the reservation category and scrap/amend SC/ST (Prevention Of Atrocities Act), which according to them, is being misused. All three demands appear too innocuous to trigger such a huge protest. City after city in Maharashtra has been watching this rare spectacle.
It’s rare in many ways. For, Marathas — with 33 per cent of the population — are the strongest of the communities in Maharashtra politically and, to some extent, economically as well. Ten out of the 16 chief ministers of the state have been from the Maratha community. Marathas have dominated the social space as well: The entire cooperative movement was led by Marathas and Maharashtra has one of the strongest networks of district cooperative banks which are predominantly led by Marathas. Control over the banking and cooperative movement opened up another area for politicians to spread their influence — education. Most private and deemed universities in the state are founded and run by Marathas, be it the Bharati Vidyapeeth or D.Y. Patil University or the Pravara Institute Of Medical Sciences. Access to resources and opportunities was never an issue for the community.
Then why should Marathas feel deprived? And why should this community, historically of warriors, hit the streets, asking for reservations? The answer lies in the slipping away of their political space with the advent of the BJP, whose emergence has been accompanied by fresh social and political equations, which endanger the Marathas’ political hegemony. However, the situation is more complex than it appears because the Maratha community is the single largest community within the BJP as well. More than half the BJP’s legislators in the state are Marathas. The community has an equally strong presence in Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s cabinet. Despite this, Marathas in the BJP are not happy. Though they constitute the largest caste base in the BJP, they are not part of decision-making. It’s not just that Devendra Fadnavis is a Brahmin — only the second Brahmin to lead the state since 1960. Marathas don’t have a say in running the government or the party. This explains why the BJP’s state unit chief, Raosaheb Danve, has made it a point to mark his presence at Maratha rallies. And so has Ashok Chavan, the Congress veteran and former chief minister, along with many others from the NCP.
Like in the BJP, Marathas in the Congress and its off-shoot, the NCP, are equally restless. There are primarily two reasons for this: First, the Fadnavis government is systematically demolishing the fiefds held till now by various Maratha strongmen. The biggest blow to the Maratha empire has come from disciplining the cooperative sector. Many cooperative banks in the state are on their deathbed thanks to the uncontrolled regime of various leaders till now. To checkmate them, the Fadnavis government made directors responsible for banks’ sickness ineligible to contest bank elections for seven years. It shook many empires, because controlling cooperative banks is a guaranteed route to political success, as they are the backbone of the rural ecosystem in the state. Also, the ongoing investigations into various scams alleged to have taken place during the15 years of Congress-NCP rule have rattled many bigwigs, incidentally again Marathas. The way the state government deftly handled political strongman Chhagan Bhujbal — now behind bars — has the NCP shaken, which till now was the largest congregation of Marathas after the Congress. This has resulted in the sons and nephews of established Maratha leaders winking at the BJP. Many have, in fact, migrated into the BJP camp. For the first time since the formation of Maharashtra in 1960, the Maratha bastion is facing an existential challenge.
The second reason is the BJP’s overall effort to redraw socio-political equations. It has a national game plan — to widen its base and bring in the OBCs and Dalits while holding on to its Brahmin base. This implies ignoring politically strong communities in different states. It has alienated the Patidar or Patels in Gujarat, Jats in UP, Haryana and Marathas in Maharashtra. It also explains the reasons behind the Patels’ outburst in Gujarat and the Jat agitation in Haryana. Incidentally, all three communities are basically agrarian. Successive droughts, dwindling landholdings and changed ground realities have significantly diminished their incomes. So, politically challenged and economically threatened, all three communities are up in arms against the BJP.
The situation throws up another possibility. Will the Dalits and OBCs move closer to the BJP? It cannot be ruled out. An indication of things to come can be found in Maharashtra, where Dalits are now gearing up to take on the Marathas, by planning their own state-wide rallies and calling for no-votes to whoever demands scrapping of the Atrocities Act.
The issue opened up ahead of the state’s assembly elections that took place soon after the Congress’ rout in the general elections in 2014. The Congress-NCP government in the state then tried to win the Marathas over by offering them reservations. The move backfired badly. First, the Mumbai High Court rejected it, and this week, the Supreme Court refused to entertain it. This has put the incumbent Fadnavis government in a fix since it too, in a rare bit of bravado, tried to pamper the Marathas by extending reservations. The only option the government has now, if it wants to honour the commitment, is to accommodate the Marathas under the OBC category since it cannot raise the quota beyond the stipulated limit. That’s easier said than done because this route guarantees an OBC backlash the BJP can’t afford to ignore. Sensing the situation the BJP is in, the Maratha lobby is twisting the reservation knife a little further. Hence these huge rallies.
This makes the situation extremely volatile. History is replete with examples that show how playing one community against another for political gains eventually leads to fires that are very difficult to douse. Developments in Maharashtra indicate political parties’ refusal to learn from history.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- Maharashtra shows BJP is becoming that which it claimed to stand in opposition to
The BJP’s behaviour over the past 5-6 years is the same as that of the Congress of the Eighties and Nineties. The saffron party’s approach…
- End of alliance with Shiv Sena speaks of BJP’s recent propensity to convert friends into foes
In the end, the stalemate in Maharashtra will force everyone to get off their high-horse and introspect. More importantly, it’s bound to compel the BJP…
- BJP’s weakened showing in Maharashtra a lesson for over-confident party that ridiculed Opposition
It’s not surprising that several cabinet ministers in the Fadnavis government were sent packing by voters. The performance of the BJP’s alliance partner, Shiv Sena,…