New Delhi: For the past few years, youth from numerous peasant castes across the country have been agitating for reservation. As the 2019 general elections approach, their demands are likely to grow louder. While the 19-day fast of the Patel leader, Hardik Patel, failed to move the Gujarat movement, the demand for reservations for Marathas kept the Maharashtra government on tenterhooks. Even Jats in Haryana have threatened to resume their agitation demanding Other Backward Class (OBC) status.

Does data support their claim of backwardness? An analysis of survey data by the Lokniti research programme at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests that the agitating castes (Patels, Marathas, Jats) fare just as well as upper castes in terms of affluence, but lag behind in education.

Jats in Haryana and Marathas in Maharashtra were as likely as upper-caste households to own a four-wheeler, survey data shows. In Gujarat, almost one-third (31%) of Patels own four-wheelers as compared to only a quarter of upper-caste households (24%). In the rural political economy, these peasant castes have traditionally been land-owning groups. This is evident in the survey data as well when we compare self-reported land ownership in rural areas. Households from all three groups were relatively more likely to own agricultural land as compared to both upper caste and OBC households (chart 1A and 1B).

When it comes to education, Jats in Haryana and Marathas in Maharashtra fare worse than upper castes.

The percentage of college-educated individuals among Jats in Haryana is 33% as compared to 27% among OBCs and 39% among upper castes. The percentage of college-educated individuals among Marathas and OBCs in Maharashtra is the same (34%). Among upper castes, this figure is considerably high at 51%. In Gujarat, an equal proportion of Patels and upper caste respondents (41%) reported being college-educated in the survey (chart 2).

Our analysis corroborates the evidence put forward by other scholars using the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) data, which suggests that Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra, and the Patels in Gujarat are, in many respects, as well off as the forward castes.

However, given that the IHDS data is not representative at the state level, any state-level estimate based on that data set is tentative, at best.

Apart from the gap in education, there is very little to differentiate the peasant castes from the upper castes. In some respects, these castes have traditionally enjoyed greater dominance than any other caste group in their respective states.

One arena in which this dominance is quite marked is politics. Numerous leaders from these groups have been elected as chief ministers. In Haryana, for instance, there have been six Jat chief ministers, who have collectively held the position for more than three decades. In Maharashtra, there have been 14 Maratha chief ministers who have held the seat for more than four decades.

Before Vijay Rupani, there have been four Patel chief ministers in Gujarat, including his predecessor Anandiben Patel. The electoral dominance is also visible in their substantial presence in the legislative assemblies of these states.

This throws up an important question ahead of the 2019 general elections: Will the growing resentment among these communities pose a serious challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

Neither Jats in Haryana, nor Marathas in Maharashtra can be considered as core support bases of the BJP. In Gujarat, on the contrary, Patels have been traditional supporters of the party. In the 2017 state election, despite resentment over reservations and other issues, a plurality remained with the BJP (chart 3).

Irrespective of their short-term political fallout, these agitations shall continue to pose a challenge for policy makers in the country. Many fear that giving in to their demands and extending the OBC status to the middle caste groups could draw the ire of existing OBCs.

The other challenge is the possibility of a domino effect with other upper-caste groups and dominant sub-castes (or jatis) also demanding quotas for the economically weaker sections.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Pranav Gupta is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

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