Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s recommendation to the centre that the Bharat Ratna, the country’s top civilian award, be conferred posthumously on Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule is seen as a part of the BJP’s efforts to strengthen and expand its popular base.

The Phules are revered as icons by a large population including those belonging to the other backward classes (OBCs) and their lifelong work for social reforms is an inspiration for a spectrum of progressive, social and political movements.

Fadnavis tweeted on Monday to the effect that his government supported Bharat Ratna for the Phules and would pursue this with the centre. “My government has recommended Bharat Ratna for Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule for their phenomenal contribution," he said.

Fadnavis is only the second Brahmin CM of Maharashtra (Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi was the first). The political leadership has historically come from the powerful Maratha caste.

Political and social observers say the move is part of the BJP’s thoughtful strategy to expand its social footprint in Maharashtra. The Phules are useful names to counter the nationwide negative sentiment against the BJP, said Deepak Pawar, a professor at the faculty of political science, Mumbai University. “Unlike the Congress, the BJP is very homogenous and thinks in a very synchronized way. That is why the decision to recommend Bharat Ratna for the Phules looks to be a very serious step," Pawar said.

The upper castes and the OBCs are two of the largest constituents of voters who have supported the BJP over the years. A Lokniti-CSDS post-poll analysis of the 2014 assembly election in Maharashtra claimed that the BJP was voted in by 52% of the upper-caste voters and 38% of the OBC voters. According to this anaylsis, the NCP was a distant second choice for 20% of the OBCs followed by Shiv Sena (18%) and the Congress (13%).

While the upper castes have long supported the BJP, the party has gained significant support among OBCs across the country after 1990. In Maharashtra, the late Gopinath Munde was the BJP’s OBC face and a mass leader; he was also the party’s popular choice for the chief minister’s post. However, Munde’s death in June 2014 left the party with a big void to fill.

There are varying estimates about the exact OBC population in the country but most estimates peg the figure at at least 40% of the overall population of more than 1.2 billion.

Jyotiba Phule (1827-90) is credited with raising the social and political consciousness of the lower castes and carrying out a number of pioneering social and religious reforms.

His wife Savitribai is considered a pioneer in pushing the cause of women’s education.

The Phules’ criticism of the Hindu caste system and exploitation of the lower castes has made them an inspiration for the political moblization of the socially downtrodden.

Political obsevers say it is difficult to miss the political symbolism in the recommendation of Bharat Ratna for the Phules. “Here is a Brahmin CM recommending Bharat Ratna for backward class icons," Pawar said.

A Maharashtra BJP leader, who did not wish to be named because of his closeness to Fadnavis, claimed that the chief minister is struggling to find his space against the powerful Maratha lobby not only in the opposition Congress-NCP but also within the BJP.

“The Marathas in the BJP resent a Brahmin chief minister and Fadnavis is deeply conscious of this fact. While his appeal has always cut across castes—the constituency he is elected from in Nagpur has upper castes, OBCs and Marathas in equal measure—Fadnavis knows his politics must also look inclusive," he added.

Pawar pointed out that the Maratha clique within the BJP was against Fadnavis’s decision to confer the Maharashtra Bhushan, the state’s top award, on Babasaheb Purandare, the author who popularized Shivaji’s exploits through his folk and theatrical narratives.

Purandare, a Brahmin, is reviled by some Maratha as well as progressive organizations, who claim that he has lionised Shivaji as an anti-Muslim Hindu king and glorified the role of Brahmins in the Shivaji story.