Maharashtra has been experiencing major political turbulence for the last five years, which began after the 2019 Assembly election results and is continuing in the run-up to the 2024 Assembly polls.
In 2019, it was the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance of the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress which came to power and in 2024, there is the ruling Mahayuti of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party-NCP (AP), which is likely to continue till the Assembly elections scheduled to be held in September-October 2024.
This time an unexpected storm in the form of the Maratha reservation agitation is moving to engulf the ruling Mahayuti, rattle the OBCs and shake up state politics - with some experts likening it to the post-Mandal Commission Report implementation of 1990.
It was in August 2023 that a 40-year-old, lanky Manoj Jarange-Patil, heading the little-known Shivba Sanghatana stormed on to the political stage in Maharashtra, simultaneously dividing and uniting several forces as he launched his crusade for Maratha quotas.
Unlike past movements that fizzled out, Shivba Sanghatana struck a sensitive chord with the Marathas, who responded to Jarange-Patil spontaneously, virtually making the political establishment dance to his tune.
With ministers practically at his beck-and-call Jarange-Patil lords over the community from Jalna.
Towards the end of 2023, Jarange-Patil set off major alarms by announcing plans to lay a peaceful siege to the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai from January 20, 2024, onwards along with three crore Marathas as he prepares for “the final, do-or-die battle” for reservation - despite the state having 11 out of 19 Chief Ministers from the community.
For a congested city like Mumbai, with a population of over 1.50 crore, a sudden influx of three crore people could prove to be catastrophic for the administration.
A close advisor to the Shivba Sanghatana chieftain said that Marathas comprise approximately 35-40 per cent of the state electorate and are a decisive factor in some 150 of the state’s 288 Assembly seats, and in around 20 of the 48 Lok Sabha constituencies – both going for polls in 2024.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, Deputy CMs Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, and top Opposition leaders like ex-CM Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, Nana Patole and others have openly supported Jarange-Patil’s demands.
However, to their dismay, prominent OBC leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal and other groups have launched their own agitations to oppose purported plans to carve out Maratha quotas from the existing OBC reservation, as demanded by Jarange-Patil.
Considering the legal aspects, the political fall-out, the electoral ramifications and the impact on society, the beleaguered Shinde played his next best card, seeking time till February 2024 to announce the Maratha quotas.
Jarange-Patil junked Shinde’s proposal outright, saying “no more deadlines, not even one extra hour” - a climbdown from his earlier challenge, “either the Marathas’ victory march or my funeral procession” - and vowed to walk down 400-kms from Jalna to Mumbai from January 20 onwards with millions of Marathas trooping into the city from all over the state.
“In case there is a botch-up, the Marathas would rise as an independent political force that can bulldoze all existing political parties… There is no alternative left but to give the quotas,” a close advisor said, alluding to Jarange-Patil’s recent warnings vis-à-vis Bhujbal’s threats in recent weeks.
Another major Maratha group leader ominously warned that “in case there’s any ‘gadbad’ (bungling) in Mumbai, then prepare to see Jarange-Patil taking the oath in Raj Bhavan” after the Assembly elections.
Political leaders from major parties fear that whether quotas are given or not, Jarange-Patil remains in a win-win situation and can potentially create havoc by upsetting all poll permutations-combinations, and get catapulted to the position of a ‘king or king-maker’ in Maharashtra.
A senior Congress leader said, “Nobody doubts his ability to bring three-crore people to Mumbai, given the past record. Look at his disciplined rallies in the last few months, especially the first one in Jalna, the hundreds of JCBs showering flowers on him, his open-to-sky stage giving a 360-degree view of the gatherings, how he praises and chides the crowds which react enthusiastically.”
For the Mahayuti Government, the challenges in 2024 are manifold: The legal hurdles for the Maratha reservation, the churning among the OBCs and other quota hopefuls like Dhangars or Muslims, the uncertainties dogging the Shinde regime’s survival, the looming Lok Sabha elections followed by the Assembly polls, or the likelihood of a new social-political chasm developing in the state.