Cries of “Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji” slogan filled the Maharashtra Assembly hall on Thursday afternoon as legislators applauded the unanimous passage of a Bill. It grants 16% reservation in educational institutions and government jobs to the Maratha community. The politically powerful community, which comprises 32% of the state’s population, has been categornised as a Socially and Educationally Backward Class.

With this, Maharashtra’s social character and political nature are set for a historic shift. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping that this gesture will win over the Maratha community – or at least the significant sections of it that have long found a natural home in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party.

Maharasthra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP will be fervently praying for two things: that the 16% reservation quota is not challenged in court and that his carefully-devised plan yields rich dividends for the BJP when Maharashtra votes for both the Lok Sabha and the state Assembly next year.

The first lies in the realm of possibility. Reservations for various communities already stands at 52% in Maharashtra, 2% above the level mandated by the Supreme Court. Fadnavis said that reservations for Marathas would fall under the “exceptional circumstances and extraordinary situations” provision in the law.

Still, the government is confident that the decision will stand legal scrutiny, said its spokespersons. It has a report from the State Backward Class Commission to back its decision. If it is challenged, the government will “put up a veritable army of lawyers” to defend the quota, said Minister Vinod Tawde.

Fadnavis’s second wish lies in the realm of aspiration. He hopes that the Marathas will add heft to the BJP’s urban-trader-upper caste appeal. But this calls for political shrewdness and greater sensitivity than was on display on Thursday. Within minutes of the Bill being passed, firecrackers boomed in BJP offices, gulal was liberally sprinkled, pedas were distributed, and beaming leaders sported the saffron Maratha petha (headgear). The swagger was hard to miss. In contrast, the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party were subdued and complimented the Maratha agitators. Also wary was the Shiv Sena, the junior ally in government with which the BJP has a strained relationship.

The BJP’s revelry was at odds with the mood at Azad Maidan, Mumbai’s centre for protests, where leaders and workers of Maratha organisations had been on a protest fast for ten days. They did not celebrate or immediately call off their fast. They relented only when Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray personally assured them that the reservation would become a reality. At dusk, they lit 42 lamps to commemorate the lives lost during the reservation agitation.

The Maratha Kranti Morcha umbrella organisation has led 58 silent morchas that attracted lakhs of participants of all ages and professions over the past two-three years. In July-August, the campaign turned violent. A few Maratha men also commited self-immolation for the cause.

Members of Maratha Kranti Morcha participate in a bike rally to press for their demands in Mumbai on Nov 6, 2016. (Photo: IANS

It is a coincidence that the historic decision came on the eve of the Kisan Mukti Morcha in Delhi, one of the largest farmer demonstrations in the country in recent years. The Maratha reservation issue, at its core, is an economic one. It is a manifestation of the deep distress in rural areas.

Though Marathas are numerically and politically dominant in Maharashtra, the majority of them are small or marginal landowners, or agricultural labourers. They have found themselves at sea in the post-liberalisation economy of the last 25 years. Stagnation of farm incomes, a decline in agricultural productivity, changing crop patterns and preferences, policies that neglected the sector all meant that their future looked bleak. A large number of farmers who have committed suicide in the past two decades have been Marathas.

Marathas could not land jobs either because they were disadvantaged and unable to access the requisite education or because other communities had reserved quotas in those jobs. Migration to cities put them at a further disadvantage, as they found themselves low on the socio-economic ladder. Maharashtra has among the sharpest rural-urban divide in incomes: the urban per capita income, at Rs 168,178 is three times the rural per capita income.

Only 3% of Marathas are rich, a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found in 2014. In another survey, political scientists Rajeshwari Deshpande and Suhas Palshikar of Savitribai Phule Pune University found that “land ownership patterns suggest nearly 65% of Marathas are poor, whereas hardly 4% own more than 20 acres of land”.

Though the State Backward Class Commission report was not tabled in the legislature, it is believed to have corroborated the indices of educational and socio-economic marginalisation of Marathas. It surveyed nearly 45,000 families across Maharashtra and received petitions from more than 2 lakh Marathas. Nearly 37% of the community is below poverty line, 93% of the families earned less than Rs one lakh a year (well below the average middle class income), 77% of Marathas were engaged in agriculture but 62.7% had small and marginal land holdings, 60%-65% of Marathas surveyed lived in informal or “kuchcha” houses, only 4.3% had jobs in the academia and barely 6% in government or semi-government services, the report is believed to state.

This is in sharp contrast to the political and economic clout of the top layer of the community. Ten of Maharashtra’s 18 chief ministers since the state was founded in 1960 have been Maratha; for four decades till 2004, 55% of the total MLAs were Maratha. Besides powerful Maratha families have large land holdings, they headed 85 of the state’s 105 sugar factories and 23 district cooperative banks. Almost all the state’s milk cooperatives and cooperative credit institutions were under their control, as are half of Maharashtra’s private educational institutions.

The gap between the have and have-nots among Marathas widened in the last few years as those are the bottom drifted away from their leadership and began to assert their demands. The Kopardi rape case in 2016 was a flashpoint, as three men were sentenced to death for raping and murdering a Maratha teenager. The incident pitted the Maratha community was pitted against the Scheduled Castes, with the Marathas even demanding that the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, be repealed. The Maratha Mahasangh acquired a faceless but determined leadership after 2014.

BJP members in Pune celebrate the passage of the Maratha reservation bill. Credit: HT Photo

While economic dispossession justified the reservation, it was politics that pushed the BJP to move forward. Its calculations go back a few years when it consciously projected OBC leaders in Maharashtra while simultaneously building its urban-trader-upper caste base.

The 2014 Assembly election was a turning point. The BJP contested independent of the Shiv Sena and emerged victorious. The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, the preferred parties of Marathas, were all but decimated in the Lok Sabha election. In the Assmebly elections, they jointly won only 83 seats to the BJP’s 122.

That election “…firmly removed the Maratha elite from state power, and threatened to evolve a new political regime,” said Suhas Palshikar in a paper at the time. “We saw a fragmentation of Maratha politics.” Despite the obvious success, the BJP had received only 24% of the Maratha vote across the state, lower than the Shiv Sena’s 29% and the Congress-NCP’s 28%, he showed. Going forward, the BJP would have to make the party the choice of urban, trader, upper caste and Maratha voters.

Along with key movers in the party like state president Raosaheb Danve, ministers Chandrakant Patil and Vinod Tawde, Fadnavis’ ambition is for the BJP to exploit the fragmentation among Marathas and move into the space that Congress-Nationalist Congress Party once occupied. But the Congress-NCP won’t just disappear: they have deep roots in the rural socio-economic set up and command allegiance. They now face the challenge of keeping their voter base together.

Whether Fadnavis can pull this off depends on how he moves tactically and plots the minutiae – getting it approved at the Centre, issuing notifications, amending existing laws, making sure that the administration implements it. He must hope hat the decision is not challenged in court. In 2014 when the Congress-NCP government hastily brought in the reservation – also 5% for Muslims – it had not thoroughly done socio-economic profiling and data collection to support its decision. The court had stayed it on these grounds.

Fadnavis appears to have learnt his lessons. In pushing through the reservation for Marathas, he has opened the area for other claimants: Dhangars want to be counted among the Scheduled Tribes and Muslims are asking about their 5% reservation.

One thing is for sure: Maharashtra’s social equations are changing, driven by political alignments and the BJP’s ambitions.

Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based journalist and editor, writes on politics, urban issues, gender and media. Her Twitter handle is @smrutibombay