The new wave of Maratha protests, unlike the silent marches that were held since 2016, are clearly targeting the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and specifically chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, the state’s second Brahmin CM. The agitation has given rise to speculation of a possible change of guard in the state’s top leadership.
While Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut fanned this speculation on Wednesday, saying there were talks in the BJP about replacing the CM, independent legislator Ravi Rana from Amravati added fuel to it on Thursday, saying six independent MLAs, including him, would withdraw support from the BJP government if Fadnavis was replaced.
So far, there is no reason to give weight the speculation for several reasons, including the clear mandate that Fadnavis enjoys from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the CM’s clean image and lack of a strong alternative in the state.
However, the Maratha agitations are unlikely to quell down soon, making the political situation fluid in the election year.
At least two senior leaders in the party refuted the possibility of a change of guard, even though they admitted that Fadnavis had been isolated on the issue and erred in tackling the situation. On Wednesday, revenue minister Chandrakant Patil also shot down this possibility. “Why should Raut be taken seriously? There is no such talk within the party. The agitation is clearly backed by the NCP and is intended to target the CM, with elections likely to be held in less than a year. He enjoys complete confidence of our top leadership. But we could have handled the protests better by engaging with the agitators in Solapur itself and avoiding the promise of reservation for Marathas in the mega recruitment,” said a senior leader.
The state had announced a mega recruitment drive for 72,000 government jobs, seen as a carrot to the electorate ahead of the 2019 polls. But the decision irked the community that has been agitating for 16% reservation in government jobs. While the CM promised to reserve 16% jobs for Marathas in this recruitment, such a promise may not stand legal scrutiny, say Maratha community outfits.
“The CM has senior ministers in his cabinet, including Patil, finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, education minister Vinod Tawde, rural development minister Pankaja Munde, but they are not seen as his loyalists. So he gets isolated in such situations. His go-to aide is only the water resources minister Girish Mahajan and his protégés are much younger ministers namely Sambhaji Patil Nilangekar or Jaykumar Rawal who lack experience,” said a BJP functionary.
Mahajan had been asked by the CM to talk to Maratha protesters in Solapur, but those negotiations didn’t yield any results. Senior Maratha leaders in the party, including Patil, Tawde, co-operation minister Subhash Deshmukh, city chief Ashish Shelar or state party president Raosaheb Danve, who can intercede with the agitators on behalf of the government are also seen as the CM’s rivals.
This has made Fadnavis’ situation a bit sticky vis-a-vis the Maratha issue. The community represents about 32% of the state’s population and is dominant in state polity.
In Gujarat, the BJP had removed Anandiben Patel as the CM, after the Patidar community agitation for reservation went out of their hands. But, as HT had reported on Thursday, a section of the party also feels that polarisation between the Marathas and other backward classes (OBC) may help the BJP electorally in Maharashtra and as such the agitations would serve the party instead of damaging it.
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