Maharashtra: Quiet marches, disturbing echoes. The aspirations of common Marathas are now turning into discouragement

The cause was the brutal rape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl in the hamlet Kopardi in Ahmednagar district.

The cause was the brutal rape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl in the hamlet Kopardi in Ahmednagar district. But that has been merely a trigger and nearly everyone agrees these marches are substantially more than an expression of outrage against a brutal episode. It's definitely a manifestation of a deep disquiet within the community.

Many people, including Devendra Fadnavis and Sharad Pawar, have maintained that no one has orchestrated these marches; they're not induced. Truly, there's something exceptional about these marches. Unlike Patidar agitation in Gujarat or the Jat agitation in Haryana, there's no violence, no damage to public property. Thousands and thousands of folks walk with model discipline in total quiet. The volunteers clean the street immediately after the demonstration. The marchers feel exalted being part with this. It's as if it were a spiritual experience like Gandhiji’s Dandi Yatra.

When did we see this sort of public protest in Independent India? How could it not be induced?

Obviously, the claim these protests are a spontaneous outburst of an anguished community has added a lustre that was special to the political activity. It's not difficult to criticize a political party or a leader. However, if the masses come out on the streets spontaneously and behave with restraint that was amazing, all prospective critics are silenced.

Whom and what would one criticize? Showing a slight scepticism against the movement would be tantamount to being hostile to your whole community that makes up a third of the electorate. No wonder though nobody understands its aims every leader of every political party has made sympathetic noises toward the movement.

It would be quite vexing if this mass movement were really impulsive. If not, who might be organizing it? We don’t know but we could speculate by first asking whose interests would be served by launching such an effective mass movement with no explicitly given aims.

While we are struck by spectacular quiet marches, can we forget the marches of the same community during the Lok Sabha and assembly elections to Modi’s drumbeat? Was not that equally remarkable? So, is this a striking reversal?

History tells us that when the less privileged Marathas deviate from their otherwise set pattern of voting, it creates a political turbulence in Maharashtra. It will be helpful to trace this procedure to understand what's happening today.

For four decades, Marathas have stood behind Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. The dominance of the caste is due to a feeling of identity tied up with historical glory, land ownership and their numerical strength. Though dominant, this really is a caste that is highly stratified.

At one end of the spectrum, you will find modern horticulturists and at another end, there are poor, modest dry land farmers and landless labourers. The top-notch Maratha leaders has attempted to keep a firm grip on the community through a network of patron-client relationships, made possible by its control over state resources.

Nonetheless, eventually, a political fissure was led to by the serious economic divide among the Marathas. During the assembly elections of 1995, the poorer segment of Marathas deserted the Congress- NCP -Sena into power for the very first time. Many Sena candidates were non-elites.

Economic growth is a disruptive process that requires flexibility in developing new skills. For a socially dominant caste caught in tradition with historically nurtured pride, this adaptation is not easy. Post-1991 increase saw the emergence of contractor lobbies controlled by top-notch Maratha politicians enriching themselves, this triggered palpable rage among them and while the only growth the bulk of Marathas viewed was in their aspirations.

In 2014, they were seduced by Modi’s achche din effort. His promise of 50% gain through higher support costs for the farm produce also played a huge job. This brought in the BJP -led government. Yet, after two-and-a-half years, the appeal of achche din appears to be waning. Non- farm sectors usually are not opening opportunities that Modi had sworn. Agricultural development continues to remain thwarted. Not surprisingly, the aspirations of common Marathas are now turning into discouragement.

The Kopardi episode was a flashpoint that triggered these enormous rallies without any explicit target except to unite the community. The Maratha vote will determine who rules Maharashtra. It must be considered a political masterstroke by Maratha elites if the consolidation through the present events is by design.