In the 2014 Assembly elections, the Marathas had voted for a party that they believed would deliver the promise of a quota for the community. Five years later, and the promise kept, it is not clear if the BJP can this time take a vote of thanks for granted.
Reason: The powerful community is divided between its gratitude to the Devendra Fadnavis government for pushing the quota through as promised, and its loyalty to Sharad Pawar, the state’s tallest Maratha leader.
That division became all too apparent last week as Pawar rallied Maratha sentiment behind him after he was booked in an alleged case of money laundering in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank. Sixty-nine others, including Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, have also been named in the case lodged by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
The case has handed NCP strategists the readymade plank of projecting Pawar senior as the ‘Great Maratha’ leader. The party is pushing the theme of “pride of Marathas”.
“Today, the BJP targeting Pawar saheb has triggered widespread reactions across the state. It is not just the Maratha community,” said NCP state chief Jayant Patil.
Although the state BJP has distanced itself from the case, party insiders concede that the timing was “unwarranted”. BJP strategists are now readying a counter plan to highlight “corruption” to attack the NCP leadership.
However, the resignation of Ajit Pawar as the Baramati MLA has come as a timely relief for the BJP. Party insiders said it has “exposed the power struggle” within the first family of the NCP. “In the absence of a strong centre forward, how will NCP transform a favourable field to score goals against BJP?” asked a senior Maratha leader in the BJP, even as he admitted that the party had scored a self-goal with the ED case.
Meanwhile, the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM), a community organisation that was in the forefront of championing the quota demand, believes the test is in the implementation of the legislation that was brought in by the Fadnavis government.
“While we acknowledge Fadnavis for granting us the quota, the challenge before the government is to strictly enforce and ensure that its benefits reach the deserving candidates. If left unattended, it can lead to unrest,” said MKM coordinator Aba Patil.
Community organisations have adopted a “wait and watch” politics. “Marathas have no reason to complain after being granted quota. They will not vote enblock against or for anybody,” Patil said.
But Maratha scholar and writer Prof Sadanad More said, “The manner in which the chief minister tackled the Maratha quota issue has given an impression about his honest efforts. The support from the community has its roots in his ability to deliver results, which was seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.”
“Today, development and inclusive politics, which he highlights, appeals to the community and people across segments,” he added.
Defection by Maratha leaders to the BJP will also be tested in this election, as the crossovers have not gone down entirely well in the community.
State Housing Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, a Maratha leader who recently defected from the Congress to the BJP, said the development plank would trump all else. “The people, especially poor and middle class Marathas, are associating with the policies and welfare schemes of the Centre and the state government,” he said, pointing to the response Fadnavis received from the Marathas during his recent Mahajanadesh Yatra. He added that the community also approved of the Centre’s decision to take away Kashmir’s special status.
For the NCP, the main battle for Maratha votes will be in its bastion of western Maharashtra, which comprises 70 out of the 288 Assembly seats. For the BJP, Vidarbha, with 62 Assembly seats, is where it has a strong base among the Kunbhi Marathas. But since 2014, it has made some inroads among Marathas in Marathwada as well as north and western Maharashtra