Mumbai: In a bid to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the centre and in Maharashtra, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar said that a constitutional amendment should be made to allow reservation in education and jobs for the Marathas.

The NCP chief, undeniably the tallest Maratha leader of the present day, also offered his help to build political consensus among all parties to bring the constitutional amendment. While NCP functionaries in Maharashtra say Pawar is merely playing the role of a “national and elderly statesman", BJP leaders say the NCP chieftain is trying to kill two birds with one stone. “One, he is reminding us that since we have the majority in Lok Sabha, we should prove our commitment to the Maratha cause by initiating the constitutional amendment. In a way, Pawar saheb has sought to dismiss Maharashtra government’s argument that giving quota to Marathas is a legally complicated process and is pending before the Bombay high court. Two, he wants to take the centre stage, nationally, by offering his services to build political consensus. If such an amendment is passed, it would not only help Marathas, but other castes such as the Jats and Gujjars, and raise Pawar saheb’s profile as the main proponent of this amendment," said a senior BJP MP from Maharashtra, requesting anonymity.

Talking to reporters in Kolhapur on Saturday, Pawar said the only way to give reservation to the Marathas was by way of a constitutional amendment. The NCP chief also joined the Maratha protesters, who were on a sit-in demonstration at Kolhapur. A senior NCP functionary said his party chief meant that the “constitutionally-mandated cap of 50% over reservations could be nullified by a constitutional amendment only". “Pawar saheb was referring to the Supreme Court-ordered ceiling of 50% on reservations," he added, requesting anonymity.

In the famous Indra Sawhney, or Mandal judgement in 1992, the Supreme Court had ruled that the reservations provided under Article 16 of the Constitution should not exceed 50% of the total available seats in education and jobs. However, the Supreme Court judgement also noted that some relaxation in this rule could be imperative owing to “certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country", adding that “extreme caution" must be exercised in applying this relaxation.

In 1993, Tamil Nadu took reservations to 69% by passing the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Caste, and Scheduled Tribe Act, under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution that protects the Act from judicial review. Votaries of quota in different states, including Maharashtra, often cite the Tamil Nadu case, which is still being argued before the SC, to demand that the 50% cap could be relaxed. In Maharashtra, the reservations for different caste groupings total 52% and it would reach 68% if 16% quota is granted to the Marathas.

The NCP leader said Pawar had offered the solution of constitutional amendment as an “elder statesman". “He also said in Kolhapur that when the Congress-NCP government had issued an ordinance giving 16% quota to the Marathas, the Bombay high court had struck it down. It was a weak case that could not stand the test of 50% cap. But a constitutional amendment can," the NCP functionary said.

A BJP minister in Maharashtra, a Maratha himself, said Pawar’s proposal was simply an extension of the NCP chief’s politics which thrived on “contradictions and balance of power". “Pawar could have demanded this amendment when the NCP was part of the ruling UPA. But he didn’t do that because he wasn’t sincere about it. Now he is trying to clear himself of the charge that he did nothing much for the Maratha quota issue by trying to put the ball in our court. He wants to initiate this to raise his profile among Marathas and other castes who may benefit from this amendment. Also, by proposing such an amendment, Pawar is protecting his image vis-à-vis the OBC, SC, and ST population, who would not stand to lose if the ceiling on quota is raised further," said the BJP minister requesting anonymity.