Maharashtra Analysis: Amidst caste polarisation, tilt in Maratha & OBC votes is now key factor in polls

Maharashtra Analysis: Amidst caste polarisation, tilt in Maratha & OBC votes is now key factor in polls

Caste politics in Maharashtra has reached a crossroads, with the BJP claiming that they are at the forefront of giving reservation to the Marathas and trying to achieve a balance between Marathas and its OBC base, while the Shiv Sena and NCP struggle to retain their caste-based vote banks

Rohit ChandavarkarUpdated: Tuesday, January 30, 2024, 09:38 PM IST
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Manoj Jarange-Patil addressing agitating Marathas at Pune | File Photo

Maharashtra seems polarised on caste lines like never before. The Maratha agitation over demand for reservation in education and jobs, the Other Backward Classes or OBCs reacting to this with their own proposed agitation, and certain parties that represent interests of the Dalit community getting vocal in the past few weeks, has brought the caste identities into sharp focus, and now it seems that the Lok Sabha polls will get influenced mainly by the this caste polarisation clearly seen reaching a crescendo in the state.

There has been a lot of discussion over the state government’s decision to bring out a notification which said the government agrees to meet the demands put forward by the Maratha agitation leader Manoj Jarange-Patil which resulted in the agitation getting withdrawn for the time being. If this step had not been taken by the state government. Jarange-Patil had said he would march towards South Mumbai with lakhs of agitators who accompanied him to reach Navi Mumbai, the outskirts of Mumbai.

Initially there were media reports which said this was an ordinance brought out by the government but later it transpired that it was only a notification (not yet a law, only a proposal to change certain provisions so that the Maratha community’s demands could be met in future). But even this step by the government resulted in huge jubilation among Marathas all over the state in every district and an impression got created that Jarange-Patil’s long-standing agitation had finally met with success. Many observers now say the actual process of providing reservation to the Marathas, and also adding their blood relations as well as in-laws in the eligibility list for reservation, will actually take a further long legal process and this is only one step in that direction.

The question being asked now is whether this entire agitation — and promotion of one leader as the latest top leader of the Maratha community — was in fact a script designed by the ruling political parties with an aim to empower CM Eknath Shinde as an acceptable face to all Marathas in Maharashtra. After BJP successfully divided the Shiv Sena and brought Eknath Shinde over to their side, they might have realised that Shinde perhaps has no political appeal beyond Thane and Navi Mumbai region. But now, with Marathas from almost all parts of the state getting mobilised and accepting young Manoj Jarange-Patil as their leader, then Jarange-Patil publicly saying that Eknath Shinde had satisfied the agitators’ requirements and withdrawing his hunger strike by accepting fruit juice from Shinde, has clearly elevated Shinde’s image in the statewide media as the saviour of the Maratha community. The question is, was this a political ploy to empower Shinde and put him ahead of Ajit Pawar or other Maratha leaders who originally had a wider appeal across the state among the Maratha community?

Though there has been no caste census in the state of Maharashtra it is generally known that the Maratha community is about 32% of the overall population while the Other Backward Classes of OBC community is perhaps around 39% of the population. The notification brought out by the government over Maratha community’s reservation demand and the jubilation that happened across Maharashtra over this, has now put other communities on the guard. The OBC community is seen getting particularly vocal about this. Chhagan Bhujbal, a cabinet minister in Maharashtra government has announced that the OBC community will launch their own agitation to demand that the Marathas should not get reservation from the OBC quota.

The largest party in the Maharashtra assembly in terms of number of MLAs is the BJP. Traditionally the BJP has grown in the past 30-35 years by mainly increasing its voter base among the OBC community. Since the 1990s the BJP followed its ideologue Vasantrao Bhagwat’s advice and formula of adding the Mali, Dhangar and Vanjari community which happens to be the largest bloc among the OBC communities listed by the Mandal Commission report. Late BJP leader Gopinath Munde was from the Vanjari community; it was through him and leaders like Anna Dange, Pandurang Fundkar etc that the BJP expanded its base in the OBC community in the last three decades. In this period the Marathas mainly remained with Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Congress party. Now caste politics in Maharashtra has reached a crossroads. With the BJP claiming repeatedly that they were at the forefront of giving reservation to the Marathas and trying to achieve a balance between its OBC base as well as trying to woo the Marathas, and the Shiv Sena and NCP struggling to retain their caste-based vote banks, it remains to be seen who is able to convince which community better and which community will tilt in favour of whom in view of recent events. What one can be sure of is the fact that amidst all these happenings there is intense caste polarisation, in the state and the polling will definetly get affected and influenced by who tilts in which direction.

Rohit Chandavarkar is a senior journalist who has worked for 31 years with various leading newspaper brands and television channels in Mumbai and Pune

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