Opening the floodgates

Vibha Sharma in New Delhi 

When Gujarat faced the Hardik Patel-led reservation storm in August 2015, the ruling BJP’s worries were not just limited to this one state. The young face of the Patel or Patidar agitation had catapulted the quota war to the national level, giving a leg-up to the OBCs in other states, who began demanding a share in the reservation pie.

There were concerns in the BJP about caste-based quota demands from the Gujjars in Rajasthan, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Jats in states like Haryana. Sources had told The Tribune that leaders from the BJP and the RSS had tried to “drum sense about the dangers and futility of Hardik Patel-type efforts” in other communities.

However, the ball had been set rolling. Haryana’s violent Jat protests in 2016 demostrated that. The state lived through its worst nightmare as the government watched helplessly. A similar agitation led by the Marathas was turning out of control in Maharashtra. Devendra Fadnavis could not, and did not, make the mistake of ignoring it in the pre-election year. 

Fadnavis’ quandary

Soon after Fadnavis became CM in 2014, Bombay High Court struck down the special quota in jobs and education that the previous Congress-NCP government had granted ahead of the Assembly elections. With the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections next year, the Marathas were back on the streets in July and their once silent protests had now turned violent.

Fadnavis did not have much choice with rivals harping on rural and farm distress and absence of economic avenues. The loan waiver announced earlier this year too had not yielded expected results. So, on November 18, his government cleared the way for 16 per cent quota for the Marathas under a new category — Socially and Educationally Backward Class. However, the special category increases the overall quota beyond the Supreme Court-set limit of 50 per cent. It remains to be seen how the proposal withstands scrutiny by the court of law.

Sangh’s stand

In the run-up to the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015, when Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar was yet to do ‘ghar wapsi’ to NDA and was playing along with RJD, he had supported the Hardik Patel-led quota agitation. The BJP had dismissed the support saying it would not affect its prospects in the state. “His support to Patel can backfire and anger OBCs as including any more communities will cut into the share of those who already enjoy the quota,” a top BJP leader had said.

Among the factors believed to have contributed to the BJP’s poor performance in Bihar was a particular comment by RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat urging for a review of the existing reservation policy. The comment hurt the BJP the most in the caste-driven state. Lalu Prasad said it was enough proof that the BJP would do away with caste-based reservation. Saffron leaders tried their best to convince the people otherwise, but the die had been cast.

The issue came back to haunt the party ahead of Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. Speaking at a ‘lit fest’, senior Sangh leader Manmohan Vaidya said one should look into the impact of reservation as a state policy to end socio-economic discrimination. The statement conformed to the Sangh’s long-held stance of a review of the privilege. However, sensing that the statement could be politically manipulated, the RSS set the record straight saying that “caste-based reservation” was a “necessity for some more time”. 

Political exigency

No party can afford to mess with vote banks commanding huge percentages of the Indian population, more so when its aim is to increase vote share.  Eyeing traditional vote banks of regional parties like Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the RJD, the BJP is trying to move beyond its traditional voters, the upper castes. Some of its recent attempts to placate Dalits have also angered the so-called swarna jatis (forward classes) but this is a price the “new BJP” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ready to pay while striking for “50 per cent” share in the Lok Sabha elections.

It has announced several measures, including setting up a commission to examine the sub-categorisation of backward communities in the central list to ensure that the benefits extended to the OBCs reach all communities and granting constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes.

Economics at play

Interestingly, like the Jats in North India, the Patels in Gujarat and the Yadavs in the Hindi heartland, the Marathas enjoy a socio-economic status similar to forward castes. They also do not face any social stigma like the Dalits. Social scientists see this desire to be counted among backwards by the dominant communities as a reality check on the current situation in the country besides, of course, the politics and the “if they can get it, why can’t we” mindset. This could be because of their inability to move up the economic ladder, lack of employment opportunities and sluggish agrarian economy.

A top BJP leader said demarcations based on caste were the only way to solve this puzzle. “You don’t choose to be in a particular caste; you are born into one and stay there for the rest of your life. But economic status can change. The government will have to keep updating the economic status of people if reservation is given on those lines. How can children of once poor and now rich parents be allowed to avail reservation?” In other words, reservation based on caste is not just logical but also the practical.  It makes better sense politically too.

Time will tell how the BJP will address the growing unrest among upper castes over its OBC-Dalit placatory attempts. Meanwhile, results from Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections will show whether swarna jatis have the potential to disturb the BJP’s carefully crafted caste calculations for 2019 or not.

Timeline

To press for their demand for reservation in jobs and education, the Marathas held silent demonstrations across Maharashtra in 2016 and 2017. The quota granted to them by the previous Congress-NCP government had been struck down by the high court. However, this July, the protests turned violent.

23 July: Maratha protests turn violent.

26 July: Post-violence, Marathas call off quota bandh in Mumbai.

30 July: Fadnavis agrees to hold special session on quota.

31 July: Maratha youth turn riot again. By the end of this month, at least six youth had committed suicide over the issue.

13 Sep: Two more end life over quota issue.

18 Nov: State government’s nod to 15 per cent quota for the Marathas.