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Afterthought

The Reservation Gamble

The Reservation Gamble
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Maharashtra’s Maratha quota could backfire on its government

ON DECEMBER 10TH, the Mumbai High Court will hear a group of petitions bunched together against the recent passing of a bill by the Maharashtra Assembly providing 16 per cent reservations for the state’s Marathas in education and government jobs. Given that there is a Supreme Court judgment which caps total quotas at 50 per cent in a state and Maharashtra already has 52 per cent, this move by BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is unlikely to stand the test of judicial scrutiny. He probably knew it.

Being so numerous, Marathas form the state’s most powerful group politically and have been agitating for reservations for a while. It began in civil fashion with peaceful silent marches and the stated intention of not disturbing the general population. However, when that yielded no results, the movement changed shape and colour to become violent and disruptive. Nothing scares a government as much as disorder unleashed by a community it cannot alienate, given the potential political costs involved.

With a General Election imminent, Fadnavis had little choice but to show that he was acceding to Maratha demands. And once the court strikes it down, it gives him an opportunity to transfer the blame elsewhere. Other chief ministers of the state have done the same in the past. It is, however, a gimmick that comes with a cost.

Given their social status, Marathas are not exactly eligible for reservations. Giving them quotas only signals that coercion works. This could trigger anger among other castes and communities that feel they are more deserving and make those who already have reservations insecure. To balance the demands of each group is a tightrope walk beyond the abilities of any politician.

Appeasing Marathas, who may eventually get nothing, won’t necessarily endear Fadnavis to them while it could certainly alienate many other groups. Also, it re-opens the floodgates for similar demands by politically dominant caste groups in other states, like Gujjars in Rajasthan and Jats in Haryana. The cycle of mass agitations will repeat itself. Fadnavis has made a desperate move to contain Maratha anger before next year’s General Election. But he will face Assembly polls soon after, and providing reservations that will be struck down is not a trick that can be used again and again.