The Supreme Court judgment on 5 May striking down reservation for Marathas in education and jobs is the last thing Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray needed as he is besieged with the COVID-19 crisis and the belligerent Bharatiya Janata Party in opposition.
The judgment put the spotlight back on the vexed issue of reservations in India and raised questions on the 102nd Amendment to the Constitution along with other legal implications which will eventually play out.
In Maharashtra, it also queered the political pitch.
Within hours of the SC judgment holding the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act “unconstitutional”, restive young Marathas called for rallies on the lines of the 55 massive silent morchas they had held across Maharashtra through 2017-18, but leaders of Maratha organisations put the idea on hold in the light of COVID-19 restrictions.
Yet, local protests raged across western Maharashtra where Marathas enjoy social and political dominance, and there are moves for a review petition.
The edgy displeasure in the community can go out of control, making it a law-and-order issue for the government, or it can be exploited by the BJP that’s impatient to dislodge the government. Taking steps to prevent or counter this remains Thackeray’s immediate challenge. The chief minister’s words later that evening, promising to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and meet him if necessary, were calibrated.
He jostled between imploring it to hold its peace, working out government measures without upsetting Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shrugging off the blame that his government had not robustly argued the case in the apex court. It’s a difficult traipse and it will call for his political skills – and more – in the coming months.
Thackeray will take comfort in the fact that Sharad Pawar, president of Nationalist Congress Party and architect of the Sena-NCP-Congress Maha Vikas Aghadi government, is on his speed dial.
Few know the intricacies of Maratha politics and the art of political negotiation better than Pawar does. Though a few Maratha organisations did not warm up to him, the massive Maratha Kranti Morchas received tacit support from NCP politicians.
The NCP is a party of western Maharashtra and Marathas, after all. The Congress party’s Maratha leaders too, are on board with the government. In fact, former chief minister Ashok Chavan led the cabinet sub-committee on Maratha reservation. This gave Thackeray the breathing space he needed as a first-time chief minister, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. It also created the impression that the issue was being handled by a Maratha.
Balance of Power
Between Pawar, Thackeray and Chavan, they may be able to fend off immediate threats to the MVA government. None want the MVA to disintegrate at this time and lose power. However, the balance of power has shifted ever so subtly among them. The NCP and Congress, perceived to represent Maratha community’s interests, have the upper hand on this issue. However, as leader of the alliance government, Thackeray will have to take the final call on the government's response to the judgment while being cautious about the sensitivities of his allies.
By all accounts, the government will allow the legal implications to play out at the national level because Maharashtra is not the only state with more than 50 percent reservation. It was one of the grounds on which the SC declared the law unconstitutional. At least 15 other states have reservations in excess of 50 percent, Chavan told his cabinet colleagues.
The other two grounds were that there were “no exceptional circumstances or extraordinary situation” in Maharashtra to warrant going above the 50 percent limit and the state law mandating that a separate reservation for Marathas – upheld by the Bombay high court – violated Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (due process of law). The government plans to form a panel of legal experts to guide its next steps on the legal front.
Politically, Thackeray has lobbed the ball to the Centre. He echoed Chavan’s earlier statement that the prime minister must intervene to move requisite Bills in the Parliament and get the President’s nod to extend reservations to Marathas. Both of them cited the Constitutional Amendments carried out by the Modi government to show that the power to determine backwardness of communities and offer reservations was no longer with states but with the Centre.
This serves two ends: It gives Thackeray room to work out non-legal responses to the SC judgment, and allows the government to deflect the Maratha community’s anger away from itself. Going forward, the legal response will likely take a long-winding course but the government’s non-legal counter to the SC judgment will matter on the ground.
The bouquet of non-legal responses has been ready since September last year when the SC had put the Maratha quota on hold. This includes scholarships and subsistence allowance scheme for Maratha students, concessions in hostel accommodation to facilitate higher education, Rs 130 crore allocation to ‘Sarthi’ (Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj Research Training and Human Development Institute), Rs 400 crore to the Annasaheb Patil Economic Development Corporation for financial assistance to entrepreneurs from the community, and so on. Thackeray is likely to step up allocations and expedite work on these fronts now.
Back to The BJP
Political parrying led Thackeray and Chavan to redirect the guns on the BJP. They blamed Fadnavis for enacting the Maratha quota law without taking note of the 102nd Constitutional Amendment two-and-half years ago and ticked him off for misleading people now. The amendment was effected on 14 August 2018 while the new quote law was enacted on 30 November that year when Fadnavis was chief minister.
Ever pugnacious, Fadnavis countered this. The November legislation was only an amendment to the original one enacted in July 2014, he said, and asserted that the state government’s legal team had floundered in making this point to the SC bench. This blame game is likely to continue for a while, given that both the MVA and BJP can score brownie points and, importantly, save face with their respective flock.
The Maratha Kranti Morchas, when they were organised, were a source of tension for the Fadnavis government.
The movement which rallied around the cry “Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha” to demonstrate raw power of the community was seen as a challenge to the Brahmin chief minister. It is worth remembering that Thackeray’s Shiv Sena was an ally in that government.
Neither Thackeray nor his party faced the heat then because Fadnavis wanted all the credit for making the Maratha reservation issue into reality. Shiv Sena is happy to pile the blame now.
The Basic Argument
The SC judgment has cast a shadow on the findings of the nine-member Justice (retired) MG Gaikwad Commission which had travelled across Maharashtra to study Marathas, conducted public meetings and interactions with nearly two lakh representatives, gram panchayat members, public officials, and had also taken views of non-Marathas on board.
On the basis of wide consultation, it had found that the Maratha masses were in need of State support. Among its findings: 50 percent of Marathas lived in mud houses, 35 percent had only primary education while nearly 13.5 percent were not literate, 77 percent of Maratha families were engaged in agriculture with a majority of them being small landowners or farm labourers, and importantly, nearly 38 percent Maratha families were the Below Poverty Line benchmark against the state average of 24 percent.
The status of Maratha women, given the community’s warrior history where men went into battle and women had to be ‘protected’ against enemy soldiers, was still low and abject, the Commission pointed out. Marathas had lost their self-esteem which, it recommended, could be redeemed to an extent by giving them reservation under a socially and economically backward class.
However, 13 of the state’s chief ministers belonged to the community as did a substantial number of political representatives from the grassroots to the Parliament. The elephant in the room is that the Maratha community now has a small elite which enjoys enormous power and privileges, and a large mass which was left behind. The latter showed up in the Commission report.
The changing economic structures post-liberalisation which shrank manufacturing jobs in Maharashtra’s cities and led to massive shifts in agriculture, the state’s continuing agrarian crisis, enormous competition for seats in educational institutions and government jobs have left the community without its old certitudes. It sees reservation as a remedy.
Yet, given the shrinking of government or public sector jobs and falling standards of public universities, reservations may not even be the best answer. Importantly, when the community is placed on a caste spectrum using India Human Development Survey data, as economist Dr Ashwini Deshpande did, Marathas look similar to Jats or Patels – lower per capita consumption than Brahmins, as poor as Brahmins, but certainly better off than SCs and STs.
The Maratha reservation conundrum, then, is a way of carving out the socio-economic pie. There is merit in the argument that Maratha masses deserve a larger share but politicians – mainly Maratha elite – want it to come from pieces other than their own. The SC said no to that.
(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, writes on politics, cities, gender and media. She tweets @smrutibombay. is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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