No community has dominated the politics of Maharashtra as much as the Marathas. Out of 16 chief ministers, 10 have been Marathas. According to estimates, over 40 percent of MLAs elected in the state since its formation have been Marathas.
However, this domination was broken to some extent under the BJP-Shiv Sena government led by Devendra Fadnavis. The number of Maratha ministers in Fadnavis’ government is about one-fourth, less than half of what it used to be under the Congress-NCP government. The proportion of Maratha MLAs has also gone down.
Almost every Union government led by the Congress had Marathas in prominent positions, such as Yashwantrao Chavan, SB Chavan, Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh, etc. But the Modi government, from 2014 to 2019, didn’t have a single Maratha Cabinet minister, even though it had three Maharashtrian Brahmins like Nitin Gadkari, Manohar Parrikar and Prakash Javadekar, in addition to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.
Marathas, who prided themselves as the rulers in Maharashtra and kingmakers in Delhi, were left politically tamed.
With Maharashtra set to vote in Assembly elections soon, Marathas appear fragmented and not quite in a position to re-establish their dominance over the state. Let’s take a more detailed look at where the Maratha vote might go in these elections.
Why the Maratha Vote Matters
Since there has been no caste census, the exact share of Marathas in Maharashtra’s population isn’t known. A reasonably reliable estimate has been provided by Professor Jayant Lele, based on the 1931 census data from the areas of Bombay Presidency, Hyderabad State and Central Provinces and Berar -- areas which eventually formed Maharashtra as we know today. According to him, Marathas clubbed with Kunbis account for 31.1 percent of Maharashtra’s population.
If one combines Prof Lele’s estimates with the 2011 census data, it emerges that Maratha-Kunbis are the most numerous social group in the state.
End of the Congress Coalition
The Congress dominated Maharashtra’s politics for the first four decades after independence. Despite its decline in the Hindi heartland and Gujarat, and decimation in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the Congress retained its stronghold over Maharashtra. A key reason for this is the broad social coalition that the Congress commanded in the state.
Jyotiba Phule’s social revolution in the 19th century mobilised a wide section of Marathi rural society against social exploitation by Brahmins and economic exploitation by Gujarati and Marwari money-lenders. After independence, the Congress benefitted from this political consciousness and gained the steadfast support of Marathas, OBCs, Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis -- basically everyone except Brahmins, Kayasths and trader communities.
However, it is the Marathas who gained most through this arrangement. Nine out of 14 Congress chief ministers have been Marathas. Even when non-Marathas like Vasantrao Naik, Marotrao Kannamwar, AR Antulay, Sudhakkarao Naik and Sushil Kumar Shinde were were power, Marathas continued to call the shots.
But the Congress social coalition began fragmenting in the 1980s, partly due to the centralising tendencies of Indira Gandhi and partly due to the emergence of new players. The Shiv Sena emerged as a major competitor for Maratha votes.
This coincided with changes in Maharashtrian society as well. With increasing urbanisation, Brahmins and other privileged castes became almost negligible in rural society. Gujarati and Marwari money-lenders also had already moved away decades ago.
Therefore, the coalition that was made possible due to the existence of these adversaries started unravelling. And as Marathas controlled most of the rural cooperatives, they became the new rural elite, occasionally at odds with other communities.
The perceived dominance of the Marathas within the Congress led to a sizable chunk of OBCs shift to the BJP in the 1990s.
“Since the 1990s, in Maharashtra, the BJP has consistently adopted a pro-OBC strategy. It presented not one but many non-Maratha and non-Brahmin leaders. They included NS Farande, Anna Dange, Pandurang Fundkar, Gopinath Munde and, of late, Eknath Khadse, Sudhir Mungantiwar and Vinod Tawde,” writes Suhas Palshikar.
Marathas Shift From Congress
After the Shiv Sena came into prominence and Sharad Pawar left the Congress to form the NCP, the Indian Grand Old Party was no longer was the first choice for the Marathas.
According to CSDS’ surveys, the Congress has been at number four in terms of the Maratha-Kunbis’ vote preference.
This was due to two processes. First was the dissatisfaction of Maratha-Kunbi masses with the Maratha elites. A perception came about that a handful of Maratha leaders had amassed wealth and done little for the community. In the last five to six years, a second process took place. Maratha elites realised that the Congress isn’t a viable option to promote their interests.
However, in terms of voter preference, the beneficiary hasn’t so much been the BJP, but the Shiv Sena and the NCP.
According to CSDS’ National Election Survey 2019, 39 percent Maratha-Kunbis expressed their preference for the Shiv Sena, 28 percent for the NCP, 20 percent for the BJP and only 9 percent for the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year.
Maratha support for the BJP reduced between 2014 and 2019, while that for the Sena and the NCP increased. This could be due to the Maratha Kranti Morcha of 2016-18.
Now, the BJP is trying to make up for this by poaching prominent Maratha leaders like Udayanraje Bhonsle from the NCP, and Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Narayan Rane from the Congress. These leaders epitomise the shift of the Maratha elite discussed above.
Differentiation Within Marathas
If one looks at the CSDS survey for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-Sena alliance had a 26 percentage point lead over the Congress-NCP tie-up among urban Maratha-Kunbis, but just a six percentage point lead among rural Maratha-Kunbis.
According to Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal, BJP-Sena’s advantage among Marathas with access to urban, non-agricultural income is more than among agriculturalist ones.
There are regional divisions as well. The 2014 survey shows that the BJP and Sena’s lead among Marathas is much higher in Mumbai-Thane, northern Maharashtra and Vidarbha, but the NCP and, to a lesser extent, the Congress were able to close the lead in Marathwada and western Maharashtra.
No En Bloc Voting
- In the upcoming Assembly elections, the Marathas are unlikely to vote en bloc for any alliance.
- Agrarian unrest is an issue and the NCP-Congress-led alliance might give a good fight to the BJP-Sena in rural areas.
- It is likely that the ruling alliance’s vote percentage among Marathas will reduce compared to that in the Lok Sabha polls.
- The Fadnavis government’s alleged efforts to go after Sharad Pawar using state agencies could work in favour of the NCP.
- The NCP could also benefit because of its efforts to promote younger Maratha leaders.
- By bringing in elite Maratha leaders like Udayanraje Bhonsle, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Narayan Rane, the BJP may no longer be able to present itself as the bulwark against the Maratha elite. It remains to be seen how non-elite Marathas and non-Marathas react to this.
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