Maratha reservations: a double-edged sword for the BJP

BJP’s attempts to pass the Maratha reservation could be a double-edged sword if it doesn’t pass judicial scrutiny but if it does it could be laughing all the way to the vote bank

PTI photo
PTI photo

Sujata Anandan

The reservation issue is a double-edged sword which could have both happy and disastrous consequences for all parties concerned, including the political parties. Maratha groups who had spearheaded the agitation over the past couple of years are cautious on more counts than one.

Firstly, they had been given similar reservations by the Congress-NCP regime in 2014 but that reservation did not withstand judicial scrutiny. The Congress-NCP  had set up a committee under then Revenue minister Narayan Rane but the committee had no constitutional sanctity.

This time the BJP-led government asked the Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission (MSBCC) to look at the demand and while the one-man commission has opined that the Marathas should should be given reservations under a new category of “socially and economically backward class”, but there is no guarantee that the courts will accept the commission's recommendations.

The Constitution of India does not allow reservations to be accorded to a single caste per se. To be eligible for reservations, one must belong to a grouping of castes – the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are a grouping of several castes and tribes and no one caste or tribe within this grouping is more privileged than the other, though there have been demands by many castes and tribes over the years to give them separate quotas.

It is the same with Other Backward Classes as also Nomadic Tribes in the country.

So Marathas, even though they were legally established as socially or economically backward, they cannot claim reservations for being Marathas alone. Which is why they are now cautious and the co-ordinator of the Maratha Kranti Morcha Karan Gaikar is demanding that Marathas be placed under the OBCs as a sub-grouping. But that is unlikely to find favour with the OBCs who, along with Dalits, have already been protesting against the possible carving out of a Maratha reservation from their quotas. The tallest of their leaders in Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal, has already said they will not stand for this – while they are not against Maratha reservations, the government needs to develop some other mechanism for this rather than place Marathas as OBC, said Bhujbal recently.

While that is clearly going to create a conflict between OBCs and Marathas, even if the government could resolve the issue amicably and persuade OBCs to part with 16% for the Marathas, this will need  a constitutional amendment with the bill required to go through both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha separately. The current dispensation simply does not have enough time for that and Gaikar has rightly caught on to the fact that the Devendra Fadnavis government has left it too late to ensure that the Maratha reservation is a right under the law.

The move could open a Pandora’s Box for the BJP at the Centre, with the Patels in Gujarat, Gujjars in Rajasthan and Jats in Haryana, similarly privileged but now poorer and partially agrarian and ruling communities, all demanding reservations on the same grounds

There is, indeed, an element of political skullduggery involved in the government’s action. Many observers believe if the courts knock down the decision, the Fadnavis government can say they cannot be blamed for not trying. Moreover, the BJP  is attempting to tell the Marathas that the BJP tried to do for them what their own people did not. Meaning, the Congress-NCP, which is full of Marathas and has had many chief minister's from the community.

They did not even care to ensure legal sanctity for  their decision by setting up an ordinary committee under a mere cabinet minister whereas the BJP, known as a party of Brahmins, have given their decision a legal framework by asking the MSBCC to examine the demand.

Of course, the BJP hopes that the substantial Maratha vote (30%) will be theirs for asking when time comes, at the upcoming elections but, according to Professor Sudhir Gavhane, formerly of the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad, and currently on the advisory council of the People's University at Bhopal, that is no iron cast guarantee for voter attraction.

“After all, the previous regime did give the same reservations in the same proportion. Yet the Marathas voted overwhelmingly against the Congress-NCP in 2014 for various reasons. Not to say they will vote against the Congress-NCP  again but their vote cannot be taken for granted by the BJP  either.”

However, apart from the attempt to capture the Maratha vote in Maharashtra, the move could also open a Pandora's Box for the BJP at the Centre, with the Patels in Gujarat, Gujjars in Rajasthan and Jats in Haryana, similarly privileged but now poorer and partially agrarian and ruling communities, all demanding reservations on the same grounds.

Marathas often quote the Tamil Nadu precedent to buttress their argument in favour of reservations beyond the 50% decreed by the Supreme Court (Maharashtra already has 52%). Tamil Nadu gives 69% reservations but, unlike in Maharashtra and other states, its politics is almost entirely anti-upper caste with the backward classes pivotal to electoral victories to all political parties. The BJP, however, cannot afford to antagonise its substantial upper caste vote by carving more out of their share for other communities who may not necessarily be deprived, both socially and economically, as Dalits and OBCs are.

So the move by the Maharashtra government is a shot in the dark. If it passes judicial scrutiny, the BJP could be laughing all the way to the vote bank. If not, it could fall on and be impaled on its own double-edged sword.

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