After milking the Maratha reservations plank in successive polls, the Congress-NCP combine may risk finding itself at the receiving end after being unable to get the proposal approved before the Lok Sabha elections.
The state had set up a cabinet sub-committee under industries minister Narayan Rane to examine the issue. Its report had been submitted to the state government and a decision on a separate quota in education and jobs to the Marathas was expected before the Lok Sabha polls.
Incidentally, the increasingly assertive other backward classes (OBCs), who fear that Marathas, who dominate the social and political economy in Maharashtra and account for a majority of chief ministers and elected representatives, would elbow them out in the battle for upwardly mobility.
While Maratha leaders threatened that the state government not biting the bullet on the reservations issue would cost it Maratha votes, OBC leaders warn of a similar backlash from backwards, who are said to comprise around 52% of the population. The 356 OBC castes get 19% reservations, followed by 11% for 51 VJNT communities and 2% for 11 castes included in the SBC.
The OBCs point out that though Maratha-Kunbis were estimated at around 31.5% of Maharashtra's population (based on the 1931 census), Kunbis (agriculturists) who have large numbers in Vidarbha and the Konkan, among other areas, are already in the OBC category.
"The Maratha votes will go against the Congress-NCP," said NCP MLC Vinayak Mete, who is among those agitating for the demand. "This clearly means that Marathas were being used for political interests," he alleged.
However a Congress leader pointed out that they had played a deft move by not taking a decision either way. "We can show Marathas that while we are are serious about their betterment, we were unable to proceed due to technical and legal reasons. Other communities, which resent the move, will also be assuaged. On the contrary, if the decision was taken, we would have seen extreme reactions," he added.
"This is time-killing. The decision would have been struck down by the courts," said an OBC activist, pointing to how it would would violate the Supreme Court judgment, which said reservations were not to exceed 50%.
"It's a typical Congress ploy, like keeping cabinet berths vacant to keep rebels on a leash. The Marathas can be placated on grounds that even if a decision has not come through, the Rane committee has recommended it," he added, noting that the state backward classes commission, whose concurrence is necessary, had rejected the government's recommendation of including Marathas in the OBC category at least thrice.
However, Pravin Gaikwad of the Sambhaji Brigade pointed out that the committee's efforts like a quantified survey in 16 villages in each taluka and 10 wards in cities had revealed that while 12% Marathas were well-to-do, the proportion of those under the poverty line was 20%.
"If the decision hangs fire for a long time, the Shiv Sena and BJP-led Mahayuti will benefit," Gaikwad said.
Incidentally, the Brigade, which hit the headlines in 2004 due to its attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institiute in Pune to protest the writings of American author James Laine, and its ideological fountainhead Maratha Sewa Sangh (MSS) are said to be irked at the NCP for not nominating MSS chief Purushottam Khedekar's wife and former MLA Rekhatai for the Lok Sabha from Buldhana.
"The Congress and NCP were not very keen... on Maratha reservations," noted Surendra Jondhale, professor, department of civics and politics, University of Mumbai, adding that instead, they used to plank to cultivate its political interests and nurture its Maratha constituency. Jondhale said the non-fulfillment of the demand had led to the hopes of the lower middle-class Marathas being clouded over.