The electoral battle for Maharashtra has turned grim for the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), with Bombay high court last week upholding the enactment in November 2018 of a legislation providing reservation to the Maratha community while ruling that the quota be reduced.
The development has added to the misery of the Opposition, which is struggling to cope with a leadership vacuum and rebellion in the ranks. The Opposition is also constrained by the lack of a coherent strategy to take on the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance in the state, which has got a big boost following the success of the prolonged political and legal campaign by the numerically strong and politically formidable Maratha community.
“The BJP-Shiv Sena could not have asked for more" at this stage, said a Congress legislator requesting anonymity. “We are totally demoralized, we don’t know what is happening with our top leadership and we have no strategy in place for the assembly elections. The Marathas have won the battle for reservation and the simple truth is that this has happened under the BJP-Shiv Sena rule. That is a big plus," said the Congress leader.
Assembly elections in Maharashtra are likely to be held in October and the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance aims to carry the momentum from its splendid performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections where it won 41 of 48 seats in the state. The Congress won only one seat and the NCP four.
The Maratha quota, reduced to 12% in education and 13% in government jobs by the high court from the 16% in the state legislation, is still a substantial sop for the community estimated at 30-32% of Maharashtra’s population, as data from the caste census have not been published yet.
In November 2018, the government of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis enacted a legislation putting the Marathas in a special category of socially and educationally backward class and gave them the benefit of 16% reservation in education and state government jobs. The high court upheld most of this law, with the reduction in the quantum of reservation being the only significant difference.
The political-legal history of the demand for Maratha quota does not favour the Congress-NCP. An ordinance passed by the Congress-NCP government in September 2014, just a month ahead of assembly elections, was rejected by the Bombay high court in November of that year. The court ruled that no quantifiable data had been furnished to prove that Marathas were a backward community.
After the elections, the Fadnavis government enacted a law to give the quota but it was stayed in April 2015 for nearly the same reasons. However, after April 2015 and especially after the Maratha community took to the streets in August 2016, the Fadnavis government started building a strong legal case for the quota. It reconstituted the Maharashtra Commission for the Backward Classes, which studied the demand, collected quantifiable data, and submitted its report in late 2018.
The Bombay high court accepted nearly all recommendations of the commission when it upheld the quota last week. This background gives the BJP-Shiv Sena government a decisive edge over the Congress-NCP by providing a legally foolproof Maratha reservation, said the Congress leader mentioned above.