The Maharashtra government’s announcement of a quota for the Marathas shows a desperation to placate the community ahead of the Assembly election

In Maharashtra, the word Maratha is synonymous with power. Both Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar belong to this dominant caste group. So does most of the State Cabinet.

Even a fleeting glance at the State’s history reveals how deeply entrenched the community is in its political terrain. Of the 17 Chief Ministers in Maharashtra since 1960, as many as 10 have been Marathas, including Y.B. Chavan, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Vasantdada Patil and Vilasrao Deshmukh. Even today, nearly half the State’s 288 MLAs are Marathas.

The community’s clout is the reason why the Congress-NCP government’s decision to extend it a 16 per cent quota in government jobs and education has raised eyebrows. The move comes three months before the State Assembly elections.

“I have strong reservations about this reservation for such a dominant class, which is not socially deprived,” says Ratnakar Mahajan, former chairman of the State Planning Board, and a voice of dissent within the Congress.

He points out that the community also controls much of the State’s economy through the cooperative network. “Most of the State’s sugar barons are Marathas. Nearly 70 per cent of the cooperative banks are controlled by them. They also control cooperative dairies,” he says.

The education barons who run flourishing medical and engineering colleges are also Maratha politicians. Their empire includes the Bharati Vidyapeeth, controlled by Cabinet Minister Patangrao Kadam, and Bihar Governor D.Y. Patil’s chain of colleges.

The privileged and the poor

Advocates of the quota say elite Marathas have cornered all the privileges, while the bulk of the community is in penury. “Most Marathas are farmers. With the division of land holdings and rising prices, they have been left with nothing. Most of the farmers committing suicide are Marathas,” argues Pravin Gaikwad, president of the militant group Sambhaji Brigade.

The Chief Minister cites a survey conducted by Industries Minister Narayan Rane to back the reservation. “It clearly shows the community is socially and educationally backward,” he says. The survey claimed that while Marathas account for 32 per cent of the population, only 12 per cent have access to higher education and 14.6 per cent have government jobs.

However, as Prakash Pawar, political science professor at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University points out, “Reservations are supposed to be based on social justice, not poverty. Sections of the community may be deprived but they cannot be termed as backward.” The State’s Backward Classes Commission had in fact refused to classify the Maratha community as “backward” in 2008.

The journey to reservation

The Maratha community, which accounts for a third of the State’s population, traces its lineage to the warrior king Shivaji. It is considered a “caste cluster” including both Kshatriya “warriors” and the agricultural peasantry.

The community has traditionally supported the Congress party and its offshoot, the NCP. However, over time, deprived sections of this vote-bank drifted to the Shiv Sena and later to the BJP.

The turning point was the agitation over the renaming of Marathwada University after Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar. Sharad Pawar, who was Chief Minister then, consented to the renaming of the university in 1994. “This was a key factor behind Marathas voting against the Congress in the 1995 Assembly polls, which the party lost,” says Professor Pawar.

Initially, Marathas opposed reservations because they did not want the “backward” label. However, after Other Backward Class (OBC) reservations were declared, the community found its political dominance challenged, says researcher Dinesh Thite.

Once in conflict with Dalits and Brahmins, the Marathas now found themselves challenged by the OBC community. The decline of the cooperative sector and agriculture on which they depended made the community more strident.

To begin with, Maratha groups demanded reservation within the OBC category. A Maratha sub-caste known as Kunbi from the agricultural community was included in the OBC quota.

By 2000 the demand for wider reservations grew louder, as did the assertion of Maratha identity. Their militancy peaked in 2004, when the Sambhaji Brigade attacked Pune’s Bhandarkar Institute to protest against scholar James Laine’s book, claiming it had insulted Shivaji.

The quota pot simmered since then but the Congress-NCP paid little heed till their utter rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The government’s desperation to placate its traditional base ahead of the Assembly polls has clearly propelled the quota card. But opinions are divided on whether it will boost its dwindling political graph. Sharad Pawar expects it to pay off. “We are not a gang of sadhus and saints. If there is electoral benefit for the Congress-NCP front, so be it,” he said.

Critics say the move will only consolidate the other caste groups against the Congress-NCP. “The anti-Maratha OBC vote and the upper caste vote will consolidate,” says former Divya Marathi editor Kumar Ketkar.

The government faces the challenge of making the quota stick, given that the Supreme Court has capped quotas at 50 per cent. The State’s 16 per cent reservation for Marathas and 5 per cent for Muslims has raised the figure to 73 per cent.

The legal tangle has led the Opposition BJP to dismiss the quota as a gimmick. “The government wants to say we gave the quota but the court shot it down,” says senior leader Vinod Tawde. With the Maratha reservation already challenged in court, the government has the formidable task of holding on to it, at least till the polls.

priyanka.k@thehindu.co.in

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