Like many mass leaders across the country, Gujarat's Hardik Patel has given Maharashtra's Maratha chieftains, who are demanding a quota for their community in jobs and education, the jitters and evoked a sense of jealousy for the young man.
Maratha leaders are wondering how a 22-year-old could get the entire Patel community together for a demand that they are also fighting for in Maharashtra. Leaders, especially in the opposition camps, are happy that Narendra Modi has an unprecedented crisis at hand in his home state, which is being projected as an unparalleled model of development in the country.
The Patel-led agitation, which saw many of his community members die in protests, is now a potent weapon for Modi's detractors. Maratha leaders in Maharashtra — not all of them, because some are now associated with a ruling party the BJP — see it as an opportunity to channel the simmering discontent in Marathas.
Patels in Gujarat and Patils (this is a common surname among Marathas in Maharashtra) are similar in many ways, except for the fact that a sizable number of Patels have made foreign lands their home. Both communities talk of their glorious past in which they controlled socio-economic factors of the areas of their influence. This immense control helped them gain political leadership, which still exists in the government and opposition parties.
Currently, Maharashtra is an aberration because it has a Brahmin at the helm of affairs, which is the root cause of deep anger among the dominant Marathas. Even Maratha leaders in the BJP and its ally Shiv Sena aren't happy about losing the reign to a Brahmin. But, in Anandiben, Gujarat has a Patel as its CM, who is also a close confidante of PM Modi, and some 40 Patels as MLAs.
The political parties in Maharashtra, too, have a significant number of Maratha MLAs in their ranks even though some immensely popular Maratha leaders were defeated in the last year's polls.
Political commentator Suhas Palshikar has put the Maratha 'distress' in proper perspective. He said in his article in the Economic & Political Weekly ('Farewell to Maratha Politics?', October 18, 2014) that the results of the 2014 assembly election had “firmly removed the Maratha elite from state power, and threaten to evolve a new political regime, though the socio-economic contours of the new dispensation are not yet clear”. He went on to write, “As far as the electorate is concerned, the Shiv Sena has emerged as the main beneficiary of Maratha votes, getting three of every 10 Maratha votes. But the picture across regions is more complicated.”
Demand for Maratha reservations isn't a recent phenomenon. The community accounts for around 30% of the state population and its demand has its roots in the diminishing power at the local level, especially post-Mandal Commission days. Marathas blame reservations for OBCs and other castes for new challengers that they are made to fight at every level. And though they have been able to withstand a political onslaught to some extent (they are part of all major political parties), the Marathas strongly feel that the community's youth have been denied opportunities in education and jobs.
Last year, Marathas had their demand met when the Congress-NCP, in anticipation of the sweep by Modi wave in Assembly polls, declared a 20% quota for them in education and jobs. With that decision, the Muslims too were given a 5% reservation. Subsequently, the High Court scrapped Maratha quota, but ruled in the Muslims' favour. After coming to power, the BJP pledged to get Marathas their due, but denied Muslims. The BJP is now fighting a legal battle for Marathas and its task has become even complicated as the Dhangar community (shepherds) too has demanded a quota.
The BJP may have its task cut out in Maharashtra as it needs to find a way to go beyond the 52% reservation limit, but it can continue to buy time because the Maratha community itself is not sure whether its disintegrated leadership will blur party lines to put up a united stand to build an agitation as aggressive as the one Hardik is commanding in Gujarat.
The writer is Political Editor of mid-day