Limits of dominant caste politics

SUHAS PALSHIKAR

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ON the 1st of May 2010, Maharashtra completed fifty years of existence as a ‘Marathi’ state with Mumbai as its capital. Both the state government and the Marathi society in general, however, failed to utilize the occasion for any real review of achievements and failures, forget committing themselves to any new approach to matters of culture and governance. If the state has been in the news, not just during its golden jubilee but the few preceding years, it has been so for all the wrong reasons.

Before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the state disgraced its reformist and liberal legacy – first by banning James Laine’s book on Shivaji and then by its inaction following the vandalizing of the Bhandarkar library in Pune. Worse, despite the court lifting the ban on the book, the political establishment in the state ensured a de facto ban. Equally shocking was its callous response to the large number of farmer suicides.

Then came the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena with its agitation against North Indians and its shrill rhetoric on the question of Marathi interests (both cultural and material). The state government, however, preferred to appease, if not upstage the MNS, by becoming even more parochial. With the NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena all speaking in a chorus on this issue, the entire political space was dominated by competitive linguistic chauvinism.

The more recent embarrassments are related to the alleged involvement of the political class and bureaucracy in the infamous Adarsh Housing Society scandal (in the course of which the chief minister was forced to resign) and the strictures passed by the Supreme Court against the former chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh for interfering in the functioning of the police on behalf of a moneylender family related to an MLA. Alongside all these scandals and situations of crisis, the past few years have also witnessed continuous attempts by the large and powerful Maratha community for inclusion in the OBC list to avail of the resultant educational, political and job reservations.

Even as these developments indicate a tricky and complex situation full of political uncertainties, the political terrain, at least on surface, appears placid: the same government has been in power for over a decade. The post-election coalition of the Congress and the NCP, which first assumed power in 1999, was re-elected in both 2004 and 2009. In that sense, politics in the state appears to be less exciting and shorn of surprises. But is this really so? Or can we map out the possible space for surprises in the politics of Maharashtra?

As far as party politics and electoral-political reconfigurations are concerned, five factors deserve attention. In the first place, the Congress-NCP coalition, though in power since 1999, has never managed more than a slender majority in the assembly. More important, electoral victory is not indicative of any durable social base.1 Second, the rise of the MNS in the 2009 elections has introduced an element of uncertainty in the two decade old Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. The MNS not only poses a threat to the traditional urban and youth constituency of the Shiv Sena, but also seems to have effectively usurped the Sena’s regionalist agenda. In addition to adversely affecting the electoral performance of the Sena-BJP alliance in 2009, the MNS has also opened up the likelihood of a new configuration (the BJP leadership, for instance, has been toying with the idea of either forcing the Sena to share the alliance space with MNS, or even jettison the Shiv Sena and form an alliance with the MNS instead2).

 

Third, in the 2009 round of elections, the Congress and NCP not only alienated the RPI (Athavale faction), they also failed to win over other traditional ‘secular’ third force parties. Even though electoral minnows, these parties can nevertheless tilt the balance against the Congress were there to be more ‘rebel’ Congress/NCP candidates. With the increased likelihood of the RPI faction of Athavale aligning with Shiv Sena, the party configuration can become even more fluid.3 Fourth, the new Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, who is entering state level politics for the first time, has yet to find his feet, far less show the ability to garner support from the various factions of the state Congress.

Add to this the internal unease within the Congress over issues of ‘corruption’ and the Ashok Chavan and Vilasrao Deshmukh episodes, or the disgruntlement of Chagan Bhujbal, whom the NCP unceremoniously removed from the position of Deputy CM, and one has a complete recipe for a political potboiler. But more than the uncertainties of competitive politics, it is the multiple paradoxes of the state’s subterranean politics that might help us get a better handle on the political complications staring us in the face.

 

Take for instance the case of the MNS. Critics have rightly faulted its street politics, as also the regional chauvinism that it represents. However, neither the supporters nor critics of the MNS ever bother to look at the mess called urban Maharashtra. Four decades ago, the Shiv Sena had advocated the same position that the MNS now espouses. While the Shiv Sena failed to attract the youth beyond Mumbai and Thane, the MNS appears to have won over the youth in many cities across the state. Clearly, this has become possible because, as Raj Thackeray reminds us, not only is there a substantial presence of ‘outsiders’ in many cities, but more significantly, many cities have developed sensibilities that are susceptible to the ‘anti-outsider’ political agenda.

At the beginning of the last decade, over 42 per cent of the state’s population lived in cities – this may have touched 45 per cent now. Incidentally, the rate of urban growth in the state has been lacklustre since the seventies – the real growth happened between 1961 and 1971. But more than the rate of growth, it is the failure of the state to manage cities, as also avoid urban concentrations, that constitutes the urban crisis of Maharashtra.

‘Urban growth’ in the state is marked by three factors: (a) the concentration of population and resources in a few large urban centres, (b) a growing slum population in cities and, (c) the lack of adequate infrastructure development in cities and towns outside of the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik corridor. The state currently has 22 cities with a municipal corporation, and 222 cities with a municipal council. However, most of these cities with a municipal area are only administratively urban centres as they lack both the look and living standards of a city.

The difference between these two types of cities can be better understood if we take into account the fact that the annual income of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation alone is higher than the combined income of all the other 222 municipal councils in the state! Most large cities experience pressure on civic amenities, a divide between the slum dwelling population and the rest, urban unemployment and crime. Yet, despite stretched infrastructure, large cities continue to attract a steady stream of employment seeking immigrants, contributing to enhanced nativist sentiments and political mobilizations.

 

On the other hand, the smaller towns and cities, with limited development potential, have become a constituency for emotional mobilization based either on opposition to ‘development’ or around exaggerated community concerns. While one may explain the angry agitation against the book on Shivaji by James Laine as orchestrated for political gain, such machinations become possible only because of the pre-existing anxieties consuming the youth coming from rural/agrarian backgrounds in the semi-urban environment. The aggressive Maratha mobilization of the last ten years or so can be better understood if we situate it at the cusp of rural and urban. Sections of the Maratha community trapped between agrarian distress and this ‘future to nowhere’ situation awaiting them in the cities, are willing fodder for political actors focusing on emotive issues and identity politics.

 

Overall, the Maratha politics in the state is marked by three main anxieties: (i) a weakening hold of Maratha leadership over the masses; (ii) a growing internal stratification within the community, adding to the difficulties of mass consolidation; and (iii) the breakdown of the traditional equation between Marathas and OBCs. These three tendencies have expressed themselves in various ways: the rise of Shiv Sena (and BJP) in the late eighties and early nineties, fragmentation of the Maratha leadership in mid-nineties, large-scale rebellions within the Congress at election time, and so on. The failure of the Congress (and subsequently NCP) to retain/gain control over the state’s politics is also a fallout of this complexity of the Maratha situation.

The major challenge before the Maratha elite is about forging a sense of unity and purpose among the Maratha community. This may explain the demand for OBC status. In theory, it bridges the gulf between rich Marathas and the poor Maratha masses. It also allows the community to overcome the traditional confusion between the Kunbis (who are already listed as OBCs) and high caste Marathas. For the ordinary Maratha masses, this demand holds out the promise of reservations in jobs and educational institutions, which the poor among the Marathas naturally welcome; for the better-off sections, the OBC status means circumventing the existing political reservations for the OBCs in local electoral bodies in the state.

This issue has been agitating the Maratha political class for some time and gaining OBC status seems to be a preferred solution for many organizations of the Maratha community.4 Notwithstanding the complications involved in including Marathas in the list of OBCs, most parties in the state have in principle agreed to the demand since no party wants to risk alienating them. Aware of the dwindling support of the Marathas to his party over the last decade, the new chief minister of the state, Prithviraj Chavan, speaking on the occasion of Shiv Jayanti, also recently stated that ‘the issue of reservations for Maratha community is being considered seriously’.5

 

Yet, it is clear that the social stratification and economic distress faced by the Marathas engaged in agriculture is unlikely to be meaningfully addressed merely by demanding an OBC status for the community. It is in this context that the more aggressive emotional appeals by some Maratha organizations need to be understood. The mobilizations are woven around symbolic issues that allow the leadership to articulate the hidden text of anti-Brahmanism. The 19th century saw the emergence of the non-Brahmin movement (like in the Madras province), when Brahmins wielded considerable power – material as well as ritual and political/administrative. A century later, when the Brahmins have effectively conceded the political realm to the non-Brahmin community, anti-Brahminism6 makes little sense except as a strategy for internal consolidation, both among Marathas and between Marathas and other backward classes.

 

Thus, for instance, last year (December 2010) the city of Pune witnessed tense moments over the proposal to remove the statue of Dadoji Konddev from a monument in the heart of the city.7 There has even emerged a body known as the Maratha History Congress to provide an alternative viewpoint to Brahmin dominated history. Without debating the merits of the Dadoji issue, the point is to illustrate the emergence of a sensibility that privileges caste identity as the key basis for understanding and interpreting history. Moreover, there is an active political mobilization that takes advantage of this sensibility and invokes symbols to rally the masses behind a certain kind of politics. What five years ago was described as the ‘politics of frustrations and anxieties’8 still continues to occupy the centre stage.

In addition to the processes of identity formation and carving out democratic space for sectional mobilization – features common to most caste-based assertions, the specific anxiety afflicting the Marathas needs to be located in the overall political economy of the state. While some sections of the Maratha community have partially diversified into non-agrarian occupations, the community remains mainly agrarian and composed of small and marginal farmers if not farm labour.

This draws attention to two issues. One relates to the weakness of agriculture as a sector of the economy. As in most other states of India, agriculture in Maharashtra while accounting for a low share of state domestic product, continues to employ a vast majority of the workforce. Thus, even as the share of agriculture in the state’s income has gone below 12%, more than half the workforce continues to be engaged in agriculture. And though Maharashtra’s economy has picked up since 2000-01 (the growth rate of GSDP reached 10% in 2007-08, slumped to 3.4% in 2008-09 and was estimated to pick up again to eight plus per cent in the next year), growth in agriculture remained at an abysmal 1.8% for 2009-10.9

 

In addition to the indebtedness created by agrarian distress, the changing character of agriculture in the state has further aggravated the internal differentiation within the farming community of Maharashtra. The growing phenomenon of contract-based cropping, mainly for cash crops, has left out the peasantry growing coarse cereals. The increased, though selective, flow of cash in the agrarian economy while resulting in the use of better agricultural inputs, also spurs new patterns of consumption as represented by marriage expenses and a steep rise in dowry rates. Simultaneously, agrarian distress also pushes members of peasant and farmer families into migrating to urban centres, mostly as an unskilled or semi-skilled workforce. These developments transpose the Maratha question first into an agrarian question and then into a question of distortions of political economy.

 

Paradoxically, these developments obtain in the political context wherein the formal political leadership belongs to the same community that is trapped in the distortions of political economy. The politicians of the state ad nauseum remind us that they hail from rural agricultural backgrounds. Why then are they unable to resolve the crisis? Or are they not interested?

This leads us to the larger issue of the equation between political ‘masters’ and control over material resources. The dominant sections of Maratha peasantry have exercised control of the state apparatus from almost the 1950s, helping them weave a network of policies, patronage and parables (as symbolic resources) that both facilitated a sense of being in power for the community and a space for the elite to build bridges with urban, non-agrarian interests.

However, the late eighties saw a disjunction between political power and control over the power to allocate resources.10 While the Marathas continue to retain numerical control of the legislatures and the cabinets, their ability to mediate between agrarian interests and non-agrarian interests has considerably declined. This development is in part due to the political economy of liberalization which significantly frees economic public choices from the vagaries of the political process. This may explain the inability of political actors from the Maratha community to address issues of agrarian distress.

 

More important, during this period the Maratha elite too has diversified its portfolio beyond rural and agrarian interests. Thus, even as the political class continues to depend upon the rural population for its political-electoral sustenance, it is forced to subscribe to policies that are designed to benefit non-agrarian interests. The elites from the Maratha community are increasingly entering new avenues of material domination – print media, hotel industry, construction industry, transport and related service sector organizations. The Adarsh Society scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. The real issue is real estate. This is not confined to Mumbai alone; in city after city the links between the political class and the construction (and other) industry dominate the functioning of the administrative apparatus.

This connects to the initial point about urban growth in the state. Increasing urbanization requires that the political class adapt to new ways of sharing material domination. Both these developments – shrinking space for mediations by the political class and a shift among the political class to urban, non-agrarian interests – are probably not typical of Maharashtra alone. What distinguishes Maharashtra is the amorphous and politically dominant caste cluster of Marathas in the state since the political elite predominantly come from this caste cluster.

As the Maratha elite unites with urban material interests leaving behind a majority trapped in the state’s political economy, the complications in the politics of Maharashtra can only assume darker proportions.

 

Footnotes:

1. Suhas Palshikar, Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal, ‘Maharashtra Polls: Continuity Amidst Social Volatility’, Economic and Political Weekly, 28 November 2009, pp. 22-27.

2. Recently, BJP leader Gopinath Munde made a statement to this effect; see news reports from Sakal, 6 February 2011, Pune, Maharashtra Times, 7 February 2011, Pune.

3. Ramdas Athavale, leader of RPI Athavale faction, recently met Shiv Sena leaders and also subsequently publicly announced his intention to destabilize the Congress/NCP; see news reports in Sakal, 25 January 2011 and 28 February 2011, Pune; Maharashtra Times, 25 January 2011 and 28 February 2011, Pune.

4. For the overlap between Maratha and Kunbi segments and the complication arising out of that, see Rajeshwari Deshpande, ‘Kunbi Maratha as OBC’, Economic and Political Weekly, 3-10 April 2004, pp. 1448-49.

5. See news reports in Sakal, 20 February 2011, Pune; Lokmat, 20 February 2011, Pune.

6. Elsewhere I have called this reemergence of anti-Brahminism as ‘neo-non-Brahminism’; see Suhas Palshikar, ‘Navbrahmanetarvad ani Bahujan Vichar’ ( Marathi), Samaj Prabodhan Patrika, January-March 1991, 114, pp. 30-37.

7. Traditional (and according to its critics, Brahmanical) history popularized Dadoji as Shivaji’s guru and the main inspiration behind Shivaji’s greatness. While this understanding is generally an exaggerated one, the opposing view wants to eliminate Dadoji’s role altogether.

8. Rajeshwari Deshpande, ‘Maharashtra: Politics of Frustrations, Anxieties and Outrage’, Economic and Political Weekly, 8 April 2006, pp. 1304-07.

9. Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Economic Survey of Maharashtra, 2009-10. Planning Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 23-25.

10. Suhas Palshikar and Rajeshwari Deshpande, ‘Challenges Before the Congress System’, Journal of Indian School of Political Economy, January-June 2003, pp. 97-122.

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