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Devendra Fadnavis has a problem — how to appease Marathas & not anger OBCs

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The Maratha community has long demanded reservation in jobs & education, but OBCs are wary. Together, they account for 84% of Maharashtra’s population.

Mumbai: Five months before the Lok Sabha polls, the Maharashtra government is preparing to table the Maratha quota bill this week, and all political parties are scrambling to get their caste posturing right to keep two of the state’s largest communities equally happy.

The OBCs, who make up 52 per cent of the state’s population, are afraid that a quota for Marathas will cut into their share of reservation and are angry at the political backing they have received.

The Maratha community, which accounts for 32 per cent of the population, has persistently demanded reservation in government jobs and education. Together, Marathas and OBCs make up 84 per cent of the population of Maharashtra, while the overall reservation figure in the state is already 52 per cent.

OBCs are also wary about the quantum of reservation — the previous Congress-NCP government had proposed a 16 per cent quota, but OBC leaders called it unfair.

Politically, neither community votes as a united block, especially the OBCs which include 382 castes, but politicians fear that antagonising them might galvanise the communities to vote for or against a certain party.

BJP’s tightrope walk

The BJP-led Maharashtra government has proposed to constitute a new category — the Socially and Economically Backward Class (SEBC) — to give reservation to the Marathas without touching the 27 per cent OBC quota, and set a 1 December deadline for its implementation.

There are concerns on whether such a new category will pass legal scrutiny. Moreover, OBC leaders have also been demanding that the Kunbis, who currently get reservation in the OBC category, be now included in the Maratha quota.

The ruling party is trying not to alienate the OBC vote, so that even if the Maratha quota does not go through in this term, it can hope to bank on the OBC community’s support, party sources said.

Speaking in the assembly last week, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “The Marathas will not be included in the quota for the OBCs. Doing so will have a disastrous effect.”

Ever since the State Backward Class Commission submitted a report determining the social and economic backwardness of the Maratha community — a pre-requisite to implement a quota — Fadnavis has constantly emphasised how this will not impact the OBCs.

Over the last two years too, Fadnavis has taken visible efforts to keep OBCs happy. In December 2016, his government decided to set up a separate department for the OBCs, Special Backward Classes and Nomadic Tribes. Earlier this year, he announced a Rs 500 crore budget for an OBC corporation in the next two years.

Also read: Devendra Fadnavis launches Maratha quota teaser, says prepare for 1 December party

Where other parties stand

The Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena too are struggling to play the balancing act.

Pratap Sarnaik, a Shiv Sena MLA, said: “Every party is on the same page on this — give reservation to the Marathas, but without touching the OBC quota. But everyone also knows it is not an easy thing to do. As a result, everyone appears confused.”

Last week, opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil from the Congress demanded that the state government table the Backward Class Commission report on the Maratha quota issue, which BJP ministers refused to, saying making it public without tying up all ends might result in the report being challenged in court.

While NCP leaders also backed Vikhe Patil’s demand in the lower as well as upper house, saying it will bring clarity for the OBCs too, party legislator Ajit Pawar sided with the government “in the interest of the Marathas”. A day later, he took a U-turn, demanding that the report be tabled.

The Shiv Sena too asked for the tabling of the report and backed not just reservation for Marathas, but for Dhangars, Muslims and Lingayats too.

A Shiv Sena legislator who did not wish to be named said: “Balasaheb Thackeray always wanted reservation on economic backwardness. But that ideology now seems to have been set aside by everyone.”

Vijay Wadettiwar, a Congress MLA and an OBC leader, said parties will be able to react only once the government tables the Backward Class Commission report and clearly states how it plans to go ahead with the Maratha quota.

“Although I am a Congress legislator, I am an OBC first and my stand will always be that the state cannot touch the OBC quota,” he said.

“The quantum of the reservation also cannot be unfairly large in comparison with the Maratha population. The Kunbis should be accommodated within the Maratha quota. But for all this, I first need to know what the state’s report says.

“At this point, the only party that is really struggling to get the balancing act right is the BJP. There is no clarity in what the CM is saying.”

Maratha vote vs OBC vote

The Marathas have historically dominated the state’s politics, and mostly favoured the Congress till the 1990s, when the Shiv Sena too started making inroads into the community.

When Sharad Pawar launched the NCP in 1999, the party primarily acquired the tag of being a ‘Maratha party’, and went on to make most of its electoral gains from western Maharashtra, a Maratha bastion.

A paper titled Political Economy of a Dominant Caste, authored by Rajeshwari Deshpande and Suhas Palshikar, explains how the Maratha community, which initially mostly owed allegiance to various factions within the Congress, became electorally fragmented in the 1990s with the Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and the BJP all vying for a share of the pie. While the NCP engaged in Maratha politics, it could not satisfy emerging aspirations of sections of the community.

The various castes under the OBC category are also electorally divided, but the community is seen as politically influential, rallying around key leaders from different parties such as BJP’s Gopinath Munde and NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal. Munde died in 2014, and his daughter Pankaja has been trying to consolidate the vote bank since then.

One of the major factors that propelled the BJP to win 122 of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats in 2014 was the support of a large number of OBCs, and the party is hoping to garner more support from the community for the 2019 polls.

Also read: Eye on 2019, BJP dangles quota carrot to bring disgruntled castes back into the fold

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  1. An effort was being made at the national level to split the OBC category, with its large 27% reservation quota, into more and less backward segments, perhaps to undercut dominant groups like the Yadavs. The Justice Rohini Commission has now been given time upto end May 2019 to submit its report, taking the issue beyond the general election. Senior political leaders from major caste groups in each state need to sit together and attempt to work out a more fair, less populist way forward. They should think of maintaining social harmony, as opposed to exacerbating caste animosities, and also the competitive nature of their economies and governance structures. We should not end up becoming a tribal society like Saudi Arabia.

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