As the Maratha quota protests spread, all top political leaders in the state have faced boycott calls in the past week. If Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had to cancel his tour to his native village’s sugar mill, the convoys of Labour Minister Suresh Khade (BJP), State Excise Minister Shamburaj Desai (Shiv Sena) and Medical Education Minister Hasan Mushrif (Ajit Pawar group) were stopped by protesters.
The bar on politicians from entering villages has few parallels in Maharashtra. Over the past two days, houses and cars of elected representatives have also come under attack, while legislators have been forced to “write their resignations”. Even six years ago, when the Maratha protest had flared up, this kind of outrage was not visible.
With activist Manoj Jarange-Patil sticking to his stand for a Maratha quota and continuing with his fast, the ruling coalition leaders are bracing for more anger.
Girish Mahajan, the senior BJP minister mediating with Jarange-Patil on behalf of the government says: “We understand the sentiments of the Maratha community… The deteriorating health of Jarange-Patil is also a serious cause of worry.”
Pointing out that the government on Monday held a sub-committee meeting where the decision was taken to expedite the reservation process, the minister said CM Eknath Shinde was also getting legal advice. “We want to give reservation which will withstand constitutional and legal validity.”
While, apart from Mahajan, senior BJP ministers Chandrakant Patil and Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, plus Leader in the Legislative Council Pravin Darekar, were at the sub-committee meeting, Shinde is missing Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, who is laid down by dengue.
The other Deputy CM, Devendra Fadnavis, was away in Chhattisgarh on Monday for the Assembly election campaign. Fadnavis is also trying to fight controversy over a video where he is purportedly heard saying that he is “a soft target” of the Maratha protests, “being a Brahmin”.
On whether the BJP and NCP were shielding their top leaders from the Maratha anger, state BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule said: “Shinde, Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar are working together to take the reservation issue to its logical end. Everybody is equally involved.”
Some Maratha activists have questioned why Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept quiet on the issue during his visit to the Shirdi temple last week. A Maratha Kranti Morcha leader, said: “The PM should have given some assurance. It would have conveyed a positive message.”
However, BJP sources argue that any promise by the PM could have caused more trouble. “With Assembly polls on in five states, other communities could seek reservation,” a leader said.
The presence of NCP (Ajit faction) Dilip Walse Patil in the sub-committee was cited by sources as proof that the party was not “running away”.
Incidentally, even as BJP leader Vikhe-Patil attended the sub-committee meeting, his wife Shalini was at a Maratha protest in Shirdi.
BJP sources claimed they were confident of resolving the issue, citing the example of 2016-2018. “The Maratha reservation protest then too was marred by incidents of violence and a spate of suicides. The state government will redouble its efforts to keep the dialogue going,” a senior functionary said, adding that this is important as it might not be possible to concede the demand right away.
Jarange-Patil’s demand for a blanket issue of Kunbi certificates to all Marathas to facilitate OBC reservation has compounded the problem. The OBCs could retaliate with an agitation on the streets. Rashtriya OBC Mahasangh president Babanrao Taywade has said that while Marathas “should get reservation”, the government must “increase the reservation quota to accommodate them separately”.
A BJP political strategist pointed out that in 2018, then CM Fadnavis had found a way out by getting the Marathas reservation under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes category. But now the Marathas are demanding a quota besides that, as the EWS category is open to all general classes.
Dhananjay Gundekar, the sarpanch of Ambesavli village in Beed district, one of the centres of the protests, said: “We have been seeking reservation for 40 years. Those in power never gave it to us, while those in the Opposition only made promises.”
Gundekar claimed that being a member of the Agriculture Produce Market Committee, he too was seen as a political leader and barred from entering villages other than his own.
Kalidas Aapet, a veteran farmer leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana from Marathwada, pointed to agrarian distress as the trigger for the current protests. “The Marathas are largely an agrarian community and our agriculture is suffering. Politicians have failed to address these serious issues, and the protests are an attempt to challenge the monopolies of ruling political families,” Aapet said, recalling how the late farmer leader Sharad Joshi in 1982-83 gave a similar call to bar politicians from villagers.
A political observer at Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, Rajebhau Mogal, said: “Leaders of the community have lost touch with the people. The Maratha youth see their leaders as the root cause of their problems, which is coupled with a looming drought and loss of crops.” Kharif and rabi were a washout this year due to water scarcity, he said, with youths angry as there were no jobs to fall back on either.
“The anger is spilling out onto the roads. It needs to be tackled effectively before it is too late,” Mogal said.
At a press conference Monday, CM Shinde warned that the agitation was now “moving in a different direction”. “Manoj Jarange-Patil and others in the Maratha community need to think. Why is this protest turning violent?… Leaders are working to give reservation to Marathas and such incidents will only cause loss of sympathy for the community,” he said.