The end of Maratha power?

Updated: Sep 23, 2019, 07:25 IST | | Mumbai

The failure of Cong-NCP to groom leaders from subaltern groups is why the parties will find the going tough in the state elections

Prominent Maratha leader and former NCP member being welcomed into the BJP by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and CM Devendra Fadnavis last week. Pic/PTI
Prominent Maratha leader and former NCP member being welcomed into the BJP by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and CM Devendra Fadnavis last week. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafThe Assembly election in Maharashtra will likely shatter the Maratha-Congress hegemony beyond repair. An early indicator of this is that out of the 15 MLAs and an MP winging away from the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine, nearly 38% are Marathas who chose either the Bharatiya Janata Party or Shiv Sena as their dovecotes. It was on the Maratha support and leadership that the Congress domination had been based for decades.

The meltdown of the Maratha-Congress hegemony has been a long time coming. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar traces its origin to Sharad Pawar splitting the Congress in 1978 and then again, after his return to the party, in 1999. These fragmented the Maratha elite and the Congress support base. Reservation for the Other Backward Classes, in 1990, caused heartburn among ordinary Marathas. They became susceptible to the emerging Hindutva narrative, as was true of most elite social groups countrywide.

The division of Maratha votes first surfaced in the 1995 Assembly election. By 2004, the Congress-NCP together bagged just 33% of Maratha votes, as against 57% the BJP-RSS received, according to the Lokniti-CSDS election data. The 2004 voting pattern of Marathas has barely changed since then. To reverse this trend, the Congress-NCP government introduced reservation for the Marathas in 2014. Its decision didn't pass judicial scrutiny as the data furnished to establish the social backwardness of Marathas was deemed scanty.

This lacuna was plugged by the Devendra Fadnavis government, which appointed the Gaikwad Commission to carry out socio-economic surveys. The Commission's report became the basis for granting reservation to the Marathas. The report was egregiously flawed, as it mistakes economic backwardness for social backwardness, which is the only Constitutional basis to provide reservation.

Yet, ironically, the Bombay High Court upheld the reservation for Marathas. It didn't find the creation of a new category of socially and educationally backward class to accommodate Marathas tendentious. This was shocking given that the existing OBC category already consisted of castes identified as socially and educationally backward. Even the Supreme Court did not stay the government's sleight of hand. The judicial action will likely fell the Congress-NCP, which will find hard to wean away Marathas from those who fulfilled their demand for reservation.

Perhaps the Congress-NCP had the option of threatening the BJP's base of the OBCs. For instance, they could have argued that the removal of the 50% cap on reservation to accommodate Marathas should be preceded by increasing the 19% quota for OBCs to 40%, which is their estimated share in the state's population. Their share was lowered because the Mandal Commission did not wish to violate several court orders limiting reservation to 50%.

This option the Congress-NCP couldn't exercise as it would have undermined their Maratha leaders. This exposes a stress in the leadership structure, particularly the Congress: Maratha leaders are failing to attract the support of their community, which is one-third of the electorate, yet their insecurity has them circumscribe leaders from subaltern groups. Not surprisingly, 31% of the Congress-NCP deserters are OBCs.

In 2019, 53 percent of Adivasis voted for the Congress-NCP. Yet it has lost Nirmala Gavit to the Sena. She is the daughter of Manikrao Gavit, who was elected to the Lok Sabha on the Congress ticket nine times. He was made a minister under UPA-I, but was dropped in 2008. Think of the signal the Congress sent when it won the 2004 Assembly election under Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Dalit, yet replaced him by Vilasrao Deshmukh, a Maratha.

In 2019, 87 percent of Muslims voted for the Congress-NCP, yet they don't have a leader of the stature of, say, the late AR Antulay. Community leaders crib that the Congress favours Muslim migrants over Marathi Muslims. Was this why Congress MLA Abdul Sattar shifted to Sena, which, along with the BJP, targets Muslims?

Insecurity gnaws the Maratha leaders as they didn't build but inherited their support base. They are neither pugnacious nor skilled in stemming the shrinking of their own base, let alone that of the Congress. Their survival depends on aborting the emergence of an alternative leadership structure. Regardless of Hindutva's allure, it is incredible that the Congress-NCP has failed to exploit the disquiet over agrarian distress and a slowing economy.

It might seem Monday Blues is prematurely predicting the election results. Remember, legislators switch parties because they can sniff the direction in which the wind is blowing. They seldom get it wrong as nearly 50% of the electorate decides on its vote even before the election dates are announced, successive Lokniti-CSDS election studies show. Under a BJP-headed government the Marathas will be accommodated but not get to rule. It does seem the end of the road for their hegemony unless community pride has Maratha voters behave contrary to expectations.

The writer is a journalist

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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