Maratha Quota Stir And Agrarian Distress Are Key Issues This Election

BJP and the MahaYuti coalition are set to have an advantage on Maratha votes due to the reservation bill. However, analysts have warned that no party is presently in a position to attract a sizeable number of Marathas in its favour

Sankhadeep Banerjee/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) supporters, in Mumbai on May 01, 2023. The rally was organised demanding the protection of the values of the Constitution of India from the Eknath Shinde-led government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra Sankhadeep Banerjee/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mumbai elects six Parliamentarians from the Mumbai South, Mumbai South Central, Mumbai North West, Mumbai North East and Mumbai North constituencies. The city has 96.3 lakh voters, of which 71.8 lakh are in the suburbs and 24.4 lakh in the island city. 

Mumbai will be a hotly contested ground as the BJP will try to end Thackeray Sena’s home rule and wrest control of the country’s financial nerve center. It has fielded Union Minister Piyush Goyal from Mumbai North. 

The city has been the turf of the Thackeray family and a core belt for the Shiv Sena. 

The party has ruled over the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation since 1985. The BMC is the richest municipal corporation in the country and has a rich coffers of Rs 59,954.75 crore. Much of the Sena’s street power and firm control over the city comes from the power and influence it holds on the civic body’s budget and ability to distribute funds to the elected representatives. 

Uddhav Thackeray’s exemplary work during the COVID crisis, by working for all sections irrespective of religion and caste received praise from various leaders. In a surprising turn of events, this strategy has caused a significant shift in the demography of Muslim voters in Mumbai who have shifted to Thackeray’s Sena camp. BJP’s anti-Muslim politics, love jihad, and communal tensions have created strong resentment among the Muslim community.

Maratha and OBC equation 

Ahead of the Loksabha elections, CM Shinde presented and the state assembly unanimously cleared the bill providing 10 per cent reservation for the bjp-with-a-twin-challenge-ahead-of-polls">Maratha community in education and government jobs. BJP and the MahaYuti coalition will have an advantage on Maratha votes due to the reservation bill, but Suhas Palshikar, Pune-based academic and leading political scientist warned that no party is presently in a position to attract a sizeable number of Marathas in its favour. 

The Maratha agitation demanding reservation has been the dominant issue in the state’s politics since the last decade. In 2021, the Supreme Court invalidated the Fadnavis government’s Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act of 2018, which provided a quota in education and jobs to the Maratha community.

Manoj Jarange-Patil, the activist leading the stir, is unhappy with the latest bill and has held fast to his demand that the entire Maratha community should be given reservation in the OBC category by identifying them as Kunbi. Last week, he appealed to the Maratha community to choose ‘independent’ candidates and not cast their precious votes for any one party. 

Marathas account for 28 per cent of the state population and are believed to have a sway over 17-18 Lok Sabha constituencies. However, Palshikar says that there is no longer a consolidated Maratha vote bank. There has been a steady and systematic fragmentation of the Maratha vote initially between Congress and Shiv Sena and with the BJP and the NCP.  “The vote is divided between these four parties. Surveys show that any one party gets about 27-28 per cent Maratha vote. In addition to the four major parties, there will also be independent Maratha candidates, rebels causing a severe fragmentation of the Maratha vote.”

The Maratha agitation would indirectly result in the consolidation of OBC votes and the BJP would be a strong contender for it, Palshikar observed. OBCs constitute 34 per cent of the state’s population and are known to support BJP and Shiv Sena.

Drought and agrarian distress 

More than 73 per cent of Maharashtra’s area falls under drought-affected areas leading to escalation of farm crisis, water scarcity, and issues related to the availability of fodder. The state government has announced a series of relief measures from, stays on the recovery of farm loans, to supplying water tankers and subsidizing power bills of agricultural pumps. The crisis has not become a state issue politically compounding the existing unrest among the agrarian community.                    

“This is the single most important issue on the minds of people in rural Maharashtra, but it has not received attention in political discussions or the media. The perception on the ground is that ruling parties are busy dealing with impossible coalitions and alliances,” said Patil. 

Maharashtra is one of the largest onion and cotton-producing states. The centre’s decision to curb onion export, impose a 40 per cent import duty, and its failure to increase cotton prices has led to growing resentment among the farmers. There are 80 lakh cotton farmers in the state. They fetched Rs 14,000/ quintal in 2022-23 while this year are made to contend with Rs 7,000/quintal

BJP which is keen to contest in the onion bowl of Nashik and expand its footprint in the cotton belt of Marathwada and Vidarbha will find it hard to convert farmers' anger into votes, analysts said. Sensing opportunity, Thackeray's Sena and Sharad Pawar's NCP are trying to appease the farmers.