Reservation. One word with far-reaching social, political, economic and Constitutional ramifications has had large parts of Maharashtra in a tumult during the last few weeks. Marathas are now firmly on the warpath with a now-or-never resolve to secure 16% reservation in educational institutions and public employment.

Bandhs, vandalism and violence, suicides by hanging and drowning, hurried meetings of community leaders and threats to scale up the agitation from August 9 have collectively created an atmosphere where political, social and legal energy at the highest levels is being dedicated to resolve the issue as if it was the only challenge facing Maharashtra at this time. Not a day has gone by in the last few weeks when the Maratha reservation issue did not occupy space on the front page of newspapers across the state.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis finds himself cornered since the campaign took a violent turn in many parts of the state last week. He repeatedly reassured lakhs of Marathas who undertook 58 silent marches in the last two years under the banner of Maratha Kranti Morcha and leaders of the Sakal Maratha Samaj – the umbrella group of Maratha organisations demanding reservations – that his government was committed to “doing everything that’s legally and administratively possible” to enable the quota for the community.

Yet, the Maratha reservation stir does not seem to ebb. If it gathers momentum again from August 9, it could pose serious law-and-order challenges for the ruling BJP, and throw Maharashtra into political turmoil.

According to reliable estimates, the Maratha community comprises nearly 32% of Maharashtra’s population. What does it mean for Maharashtra that its single-largest community, which is also the most influential socially, economically and politically, is virtually holding the state to ransom over its reservation demand? Plenty, and none of it looks good.

In essence, the reservation, and the protests over it, are likely to alter political equations and entrench caste identities across what was once a progressive state.

The Marathas’ gamble

With the Fadnavis government inching towards the 2019 general and Assembly elections, the Sakal Maratha Samaj believes this is the time to put the foot on the pedal. Its leaders decried the violence that broke out in Navi Mumbai, Pune and Aurangabad last week and the pro-quota suicides, but they know that the incidents have created a climate in which Fadnavis will simply have to bite the bullet.

The Maratha reservation issue, which first emerged in the 1980s and gathered steam in the 1990s, seemed settled when the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government declared 16% reservation for the community, along with 5% for Muslims, through an Ordinance in March 2014. The decision, an election sop, had upped the total reservation in the state to 73%, well beyond the 50% mark mandated by the Supreme Court. It was challenged in the Bombay High Court.

In December 2014, the high court stayed the order and subsequently asked the government for demographic data to support reservation for Marathas. This data is hard to come by. There has not been a caste-wise collection of Census data after 1931, and figures since then are deductions or estimates. Various commissions have held that Marathas are not socially backward. In October 2016, the high court observed that the Maratha community “cannot be regarded as Backward Class, and that the National Commission for Backward Class and Mandal Commission had concluded that the community is socially advanced”.

In January 2017, the government then formed the State Backward Classes Commission to study “social backwardness” of the community. This study will be based on government data and sample surveys in 700 villages across the state. It has received 2.25 lakh petitions. The report is awaited later this year. Even as this work started, the Maratha Kranti Morcha began its state-wide silent protests, which were intimidatingly large. Over two years, lakhs of Maratha men, women and children made their presence felt in these protests.

The current protest – violent and loud – is a big gamble by leaders of the community. By upping the stakes, the message is that irrespective of the report’s findings and legal outcome, the issue must have a political solution. Fadnavis, being a Brahmin, is also fair game. The ancient Brahmin versus Maratha feud has been renewed.

The gap within

There is undoubtedly a deep-rooted discontent within the Maratha community. Once the dominant caste in terms of land ownership, economic and social clout, numerical strength and its self-image as a power-centre, the community now finds itself in a strange bind.

Over the years, a few Maratha families or clans prospered. They controlled resources in the modern economy, reaffirmed their political clout largely through the Congress and enjoyed the privilege of being considered a superior caste. The majority of the community, however, fell behind even the socially backward castes. They saw their agricultural incomes shrink, they lagged behind in acquiring quality education, and are unsuited for jobs, which anyway were reserved for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

There is what political analyst Suhas Palshikar calls a “Maratha elite” and the “Maratha masses”, especially since the 1990s, and a growing division and disjunction between them. The Maratha dominance all these years was basically the consolidation of power by the Maratha elite where Maharashtra’s dominant party (the Congress) became the natural home of the dominant caste (Marathas). This equation has been changing especially since 2014, Palshikar explained in a paper. The decline of the Congress has had a direct impact on the clout of the Maratha elite.

Driven by their own pitiable socio-economic conditions, the Maratha masses have risen in protest against the government as well as their elite, chanting “Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha”. The anger is palpable when Maratha Kranti Morcha protestors spoke of how 80% of them still live off subsistence farming. According to government figures, one in two or 52.85% farmers who committed suicide in the Marathwada region between 2014 and 2016 were Marathas.

That the Deshmukhs, Pawars, Chavans, Patils and other Maratha political leaders, who control not only the rural economy but also own educational institutions and factories in the state, allowed a large section of their community to languish behind says a great deal about them and their unwillingness to address this social unrest when in power.

Agreement and polarisation

The irony is that there is broad agreement among political parties and socially powerful leaders that Marathas must get the benefits of reservation. Even Dalits have backed it if it does not reduce their share of the pie. The question is how to work it into the system without falling foul of the Constitution, and without annoying communities that already enjoy reservation.

Resolving this will not be easy for any government. The Opposition has smelt an opportunity to corner Fadnavis. State Congress chief and former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan slammed the government for “too much talk…now it’s time for action”. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar advised Fadnavis to open dialogue with representatives of protestors.

Shiv Sena working president Uddhav Thackeray – an ally of the state government who often acts as the Opposition – suggested that the state Legislature take a decision and the government need not even wait for the State Backward Classes Commission’s report.

There are undeniable political undercurrents at work. As the temperature escalated last week, two Marathas MLAs – one each from the Sena and Nationalist Congress Party – resigned. Two others from the BJP spoke of tendering their resignations. Maratha legislators in the BJP are wary and restless. The Marathas in Fadnavis’ cabinet are sullen or silent.

The Maratha versus the rest polarisation has long-lasting social and political implications. It immediately helps the BJP as well as the Congress parties. The BJP, which won handsomely in 2014 on a combination of urban, upper caste and Other Backward Classes votes, believes that the polarisation will help consolidate its vote bank ahead of the 2019 elections. Its Maratha votes were incidental but gave it the incremental advantage.

Could the massive Maratha morchas and agitation have been tacitly encouraged and supported by the two Congress parties or even Fadnavis’ rivals within the BJP? The possibility exists.

Fadnavis’ test

This is Fadnavis’ moment of reckoning, said a Maharashtra minister, requesting anonymity. If the Maharashtra chief minister finds himself alone and rather isolated, facing flak for mishandling the agitation, it is because he has functioned largely on his own with the backing of his bosses in Delhi. Since October 2014, he has been the main man of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in Maharashtra, often alienating his older and more experienced colleagues.

Fadnavis’ announcement, in May, that Maharashtra planned to fill 72,000 government vacancies poured oil into the Maratha stir cauldron. He then hastily declared that 16% of those jobs would be left vacant for Marathas, but the morcha leaders did not believe him. His comments also brought on the ire of other communities like Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who felt they were being deprived of jobs.

Since the quota issue is hanging fire, the Fadnavis government announced a range of sops – financial help for start-ups by Maratha youth, partial waiver of tuition fees for 605 academic and professional courses, one hostel in each of the state’s 36 districts for students – but agitators say these are not being implemented. The Opposition too has called out loopholes and tardy implementation.

How Fadnavis resolves the Maratha reservation issue will determine at least two things: One, if he has a grip on the administration to maintain peace, and two, if the BJP can be the new political home for Marathas post-2019. If he stumbles, Maharashtra will see continuing unrest, perhaps even violence, and Maratha votes would largely head home to the two Congress parties and the Sena – an anxious prospect for the chief minister.