A well calibrated movement to ease out deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis (BJP) under the guise of reservation for Marathas in matters of government jobs and education is currently playing out in Maharashtra.
Those leaders who are now calling for Maratha reservation did precious little when they were in office. Unable to keep his emotions in check, Mr Fadnavis himself admitted recently that he is a “soft target” since he is a Brahmin. Mr Fadnavis is being targeted not just because he is a Brahmin, but mainly because he was the one who engineered the downfall of the erstwhile Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) helmed by Uddhav Thackeray by creating a split in the Shiv Sena. Mr Fadnavis did not rest on his laurels. After forming a coalition government of the BJP and Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde), he split the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by veteran leader Sharad Pawar (83) as well. The latter had always fancied himself to be a chanakya who could manipulate the state's politics at will. But, here was this 53-year-old leader from Nagpur called Devendra Fadnavis who neatly outsmarted him, not once, but twice. And Pawar is not the one to give up easily. The entire Maratha agitation is being masterminded by him. He has asked the Sambhaji Brigade, a militant organisation of Marathas with branches in most of the 36 districts of the state to provide the organisational infrastructure to Manoj Jharange Patil (40) who was an unknown quantity until recently. But today he has become the face of the Maratha agitation. To his credit it should be stated that Mr Patil is playing his role with great finesse and is keeping the coalition government on the tenterhooks.
Those backing the agitation know very well that the legal option before the state government is extremely limited in view of the May 5, 2021 judgement of a bench of the Supreme Court which ruled that the 50% cap on reservations cannot be breached and the state government had failed to lay out an ‘extraordinary situation’ to fall within the exception to this limit. It struck down the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, which granted reservations to Marathas. Significantly, the apex court also ruled that the 102nd amendment to the Constitution took away the states' powers to identify backward classes.
On September 14, 2023 , the Shinde government managed to persuade Mr Patil to call off his hunger strike, which he had started in Jalna on August 29, 2023 promising to work out a modus vivendi. It has now filed a curative petition in the SC claiming that several important issues were not urged when the apex court heard the arguments earlier. Normally, curative petitions are entertained and heard only when the court feels that substantive points of law and fact have been overlooked. It remains to be seen how the SC responds to the state's latest petition.
Meanwhile, those opposed to Mr Fadnavis have escalated the agitation with legislators' homes being burnt and stoned. A new dimension is the resignation of Maratha elected representatives.
Maybe only the resignation of Mr Fadnavis, which has been repeatedly demanded by Mr Pawar and his daughter Ms Supriya Sule, M.P., will defuse the situation. But that will be a heavy price for the BJP to pay. All in all, Maharashtra appears to be in for a phase of law and order problem with the tripartite coalition having little clue as to how to handle the situation. If the police are ordered to get tough with the agitators, then it will only boomerang against the government; a situation which it can ill afford in view of the upcoming general elections. But, if it keeps quiet in the fond hope that Mr Patil can be persuaded once again to withdraw his fast, then it risks a total collapse of law and order. The future of the government now depends on whether Mr Patil decides to eat or not.