The Centre can ill-afford to isolate the issue of Maratha quota just for the sake of politics, writes Ravikiran Deshmukh

Even as the state government and legal experts were busy analysing the Supreme Court judgment on the Maratha reservation, the BJP-led Union government swiftly made a move and filed a review petition to catch the Shiv Sena-led three-party government off-guard. Expectedly, some stinging barbs from the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government followed. The points raised in the review petition and reactions by the state indicate the issue is now completely stuck in a political quagmire.

The Union government has sought clarification from the SC that even after the 102nd Constitutional amendment, the rights of the state governments to decide backwardness of a caste and offer reservation is intact. The MVA government wants exactly the opposite. First, the state government is of the view that the issue is well within the Central government’s purview; secondly, it demands the Centre should raise the issue of removal of the 50 per cent cap on reservations before the SC.

After the Centre's move, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now demanded the state should also move a review petition before the SC. Besides, it should constitute the state backward class commission, get a fresh study done on the Maratha community’s backwardness and seek ratification by the SC. Even before the state could decide on its next strategy, the party had set up a committee under its state unit chief Chandrakant Patil and decided to support the Maratha organisations that wanted to start agitation against the state government. Not just that, the BJP has also demanded a Rs 3,000 crore package for the community.

All these are clearly political moves - a sort of political one-upmanship. The review petition by the BJP-led Union government clearly shows that the Centre doesn’t want to take any responsibility for now, and instead, wants the state to handle it on its own. The state, on the other hand, is of the view that the Centre should take the onus. Now, the question is: on whose side should the Marathas be? This political battle will intensify until the bells for the next general elections start ringing.

Key issues for Marathas

For the hapless Maratha youths, the two most crucial issues are education and employment - exacerbated by the rising expenses on education and shrinking job opportunities, compounded with the crisis in the agriculture sector, the main source of livelihood for the maximum number of Maratha families. The community has been cheated on two counts. First, no sustained efforts were made to make agriculture self-reliant. This was done to ensure that the farming community remained dependent on the government for obvious political purposes.

Crucial issues such as irrigation, uninterrupted power supply, remunerative prices for agriculture produce, and ideal marketing facilities remained unresolved. Such issues are most crucial for the regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha, particularly where irrigation facilities are inadequate. As a result, youths from these regions have always been seen as most aggressive for the cause of the Maratha reservation. Political parties have shrewdly utilised them for agitations.

The demand for reservation became fierce with the systemic collapse of the cooperative structure that offered maximum employment opportunities in rural and semi-urban parts of the state. Once upon a time, Maharashtra was known for its robust cooperative network in sugar factories, spinning mills, banks, primary credit societies, and the dairy sector. But mostly due to the mismanagement and partly due to privatisation, it has lost its glory.

Successive governments failed to control the decline of the rural economy. All these issues came to the fore during the tenure of the Devendra Fadnavis government. Despite being a partner in the government, the Shiv Sena kept itself aloof, to maintain its political identity. Its ministers such as Eknath Shinde and Diwakar Raote were part of the deliberations with organisations but the party remained aloof and never shied from expressing its views openly.

Brutal rape-murder

The issue became volatile after the brutal rape and killing of a girl from Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district. More than 50 morchas were taken out by Maratha communities asking for speedy justice and demand for reservation to the Marathas. Fadnavis, being a Brahmin, was on the defensive, given the political fallout. He could not express any opinion but to support the demands made by Marathas. For that, he chaired several meetings with political leaders from the community and office bearers of various organisations.

All the agitations - over the Kopardi incident, for Maratha reservation or the farmers’ agitation, unnerved the BJP-led state government. But Fadnavis used his political, as well as social connections for life, to outsmart his political rivals who were trying to unseat him. Using his skills for political manoeuvring, Fadnavis held a series of meetings with prominent leaders of Maratha organisations from various districts. His meetings, organised with the help of a media organisation, went off smoothly and unnoticed, offering him a much-needed breather.

Of all these meetings, the most crucial one was the all-party meeting on July 28, 2018, at Vidhan Bhavan, that appealed to the Maratha community for calm and restraint. The meeting resolved to request the state backward class commission to complete its work on determining the backwardness of the community as soon as possible. This is where something has gone wrong. Because the SC has specifically noted that the commission has failed to prove the backwardness of the Maratha community. The alacrity shown in winding up the study and submission of the report may have proved detrimental.

The data presented before the Supreme Court also revealed that Marathas traditionally control various sectors, including the cooperative and educational institutions and it has the highest presence in the state legislature, Parliament, and the government.

Hot-button issue

Finally, with all eyes set on reservation now, no political party can risk playing with this fireball any longer. The BJP may have played a political move by approaching the SC with a review petition. But it cannot ignore the issue for long as it is more or less applicable to other states in one form or other. Besides Marathas, Patidars, Gurjars and Jats, the dominant communities from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana respectively, have demonstrated their violent postures in recent years. Hence, the government of India cannot isolate the issue of Maratha reservation just for the sake of politics in Maharashtra.

The Narendra Modi-led government has two options - either to enhance the ceiling of 50 per cent reservation or make efforts to create an ideal situation, in which equal opportunities are available for overall growth. The second option may remain a mirage mainly due to the diverse cultural, geographic and social structure of our nation.

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