Is there a connection between next year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and the ongoing agitation by Marathas across Maharashtra?

As Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis scrambles to douse the growing anger among the Marathas – who are demanding reservations in government jobs and education and protesting the gangrape and murder of a minor Maratha girl – Bharatiya Janata Party insiders maintain it could become far more difficult for him to handle the agitation if their party does not do well in the Uttar Pradesh polls.

A poor showing by the BJP in UP will embolden the protestors in Maharashtra to intensify their stir as the ruling party will then be perceived to be on a weak wicket. To some extent, the chief minister’s future also depends on the results of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

As it is, Fadnavis is unable to get a grip on the situation in his state. In case the protests pick up more momentum, he will have a tough time saving his job. It is already being speculated that the well-organised Maratha uprising has been designed to unseat Fadnavis by his detractors both within and outside the BJP.

Political power play

The names of Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who was hoping to take over as Maharashtra chief minister two years ago before he was pipped to the post by Fadnavis, and his friend and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar crop up in conversations in this connection. Though the two leaders are on different sides of the political divide, both have a shared interest in destabilising the chief minister. While Gadkari has a personal score to settle with Fadnavis, the very survival of Pawar’s party is at stake.

As in the case of the Congress, the dominant Maratha community constitutes the core support base of the NCP. Though he has denied having any role in the agitation, Pawar and his party are said to be extending financial support to the protestors, not very different from the help given by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to the anti-corruption stir led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal in 2011.

Many provocations

Triggered by the gangrape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl in Kopardi village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, the Maratha protests have gradually grown and spread across the state. Lakhs of Marathas have been gathering at different locations – the final protest is to be held in Mumbai next month – to press for reservations for the community and an amendment of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, which they charge is being misused against them. The agitation has been peaceful and is leaderless as the protestors have taken a conscious and deliberate decision not to allow politicians on the dais, although Maratha leaders from the NCP and Congress have been spotted at the protest venues.

While the rape and murder of the Maratha girl, allegedly by Dalit boys, is the immediate provocation for the current uprising, the protests are a result of growing frustration among the Marathas over losing political power to a Brahmin (Fadnavis). Having been at the helm of successive governments in the past, the dominant Maratha community – comprising 32% of the state’s population – has enjoyed immense political and economic clout as it has controlled the cooperative and education sectors. It cannot reconcile to the idea of losing power. In addition, the Marathas are also apprehensive about the Fadnavis government’s move to crack down on cooperatives.

Maratha leaders, however, dispel the perception that the community is chafing at losing political power. A senior Congress leader said the bulk of Marathas survive on agriculture and these protests are a reflection of their anger at the government’s poor handling of the agrarian crisis that has hit them hard.

At the same time, there are strong anti-Dalit undertones to these protests as Marathas insist they have been given a raw deal by the political class, which has been appeasing the Scheduled Castes. Hence, the demand for quotas in government jobs and educational institutions.

Though the protests have, so far, been peaceful, there is an underlying fear that they could lead to an ugly confrontation as the Dalits are planning to counter the Marathas with similar protest marches in the coming days. As it is, there has been simmering tension between the two communities as the Marathas have been complaining that the Prevention of Atrocities Act has been misused against them by the Dalits.

No easy way out

As both sides threaten to up the ante, Fadnavis is clearly unnerved, especially since there are no easy solutions to the problem at hand. The chief minister is in no position to agree to their demand for reservations as the earlier Congress-NCP government’s proposal for quotas for Marathas was struck down by the judiciary. The government cannot provide for further quotas as it would then cross the 50% ceiling set by the Supreme Court. It will also be difficult for the chief minister to accommodate Marathas in the 27% quotas provided for Other Backward Classes. This will obviously be opposed by the OBCs, who will not take kindly to a cut in their share of reservations. The BJP can ill-afford to antagonise the OBCs as it has been consciously wooing them and they have responded favourably to its overtures.

Fadnavis finds himself in an equally difficult position with regard to the demand to amend the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Any move in that direction will be met with strong resistance from the Dalits, who are already feeling the heat since the Marathas commenced their protests. The BJP has been on the backfoot as far as Scheduled Castes are concerned after Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad and the public flogging of Dalit boys by cow protection vigilante groups in Gujarat.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah intensifying their efforts to win over the Dalits, Fadnavis cannot tinker with the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Any such move will have immediate repercussions in the Uttar Pradesh elections as Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has already launched a high-voltage campaign to dub the BJP as anti-Dalit.

Yet another inextricable link between Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.