When does a socially and politically dominant, relatively prosperous Indian caste get itself designated as “backward,” and thus deserving of affirmative action in the form of reserved quotas in government jobs and educational institution enrollment?

Answer: When Maharashtra state is a few months away from general elections – as it was in the latter part of last year – and local politicians see a possible way to switch the allegiance of members of the majority Maratha caste, who traditionally have voted for the Indian National Congress.

Now that the elections are about to begin, the question is whether the ploy – which has yet to overcome legal challenges – has worked out fully in the way that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) hoped.

Suggesting otherwise is the fact that, meanwhile, there are some angry Maratha activists – and it’s the BJP-led state officials they’re upset with.

The history

On July 23, last year, Dr Kanchan Patil was part of a Maratha protest group at the Sion-Panvel Highway when violence erupted in many places across Maharashtra during agitation for the caste’s special designation.

The group was raising slogans to press for their demands when some stones came flying from nowhere. The cops started cane-charging, and fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

“I and my other friends left the protest venue immediately and returned home. Next day I found myself booked for attempt to murder under section 307 of the Indian Penal code, among other serious charges,” said Dr Patil, who was granted bail later and is now bracing herself for a legal battle.

“We didn’t pelt stones. We were holding a peaceful demonstration when stones came from the other side of our gathering,” said Patil. Two other Panvel women, advocate Sulakshna Patil and homemaker Jayashri Dhapte, face similar charges.

“Over 7,000 demonstrators have been booked for serious criminal charges ranging from attempt to murder to rioting. These cases were registered only to curb our prolonged agitation,” Virendra Pawar, president of Sakal Maratha Samaj told Asia Times.

As the general elections approach, the anger of these activists is growing. “The state government had promised to withdraw cases but didn’t do that,” Pawar said. Locking in the promised quotas for the Marathas “has also been elusive so far.”

The Marathas are predominant in Marathwada/central (8 seats), western (12 seats) and north Maharashtra (6 seats) where 26 constituencies will go to polls in three phases – on April 18, 23 and 29.

The alliance of the BJP and Shiv Sena won 20 of the 26 seats here in the 2014 general elections.

These had been bastions of Congress and its offshoot and ally the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), but 2014’s “Modi wave” restricted the opposition to just six seats – four for NCP and two for the Congress. These were the only seats won by the opposition in the entire state.

For the current elections, Congress-NCP and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna (SSS) have fielded 25, 21 and 2 candidates, respectively, under the banner of the United Progressive Alliance. BJP and Shiv Sena will fight for 25 and 23 seats, respectively.

Key factors

Maratha anger coupled with the agrarian crisis could spell trouble for the NDA in this region, especially in the Marathwada region this time.

The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance’s campaign led by Hindu nationalist star Prime Minister Narendra Modi is built around national security, emphasizing the Balakot airstrikes on Pakistan as the chief poll plank on top of issues like polarization of communities and attacks on Congress and the Gandhi family, which were tried and tested in previous elections.

Congress and NCP hope their “basic minimum income” (Rs 72,000 a year) plan will hit a chord among people in view of the rising joblessness and agrarian crisis. A farm loan waiver announced by the BJP government in the state two years ago is yet to be fully implemented and people in the state worry about how to deal with yet another drought in these areas.

NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik said: “There is a lot of anger among farmers and youngsters due to the agrarian crisis, joblessness, caste tussle and the NDA government’s unkept poll promises. Dalits and Muslims are also angry with the regime. These issues may not be reflected in media reports but will help us to win at least a dozen seats in Marathwada, North and West Maharashtra.”

But BJP spokesperson Prem Shukla claimed: “We have given 16% reservation to the Maratha community by enacting a law which is currently being reviewed by the court.” Based on the alliance’s sweep of municipal elections, he predicted, “our tally will go further up.”

At a time when discontent among the Dalits (who were untouchables in the traditional caste system), Other Backward Classes, Dhangars (a herding community), tribals and Muslims could have jeopardized the NDA’s chances, the emergence of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in alliance with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is likely to dent opposition votes.

Marathwada

The parched Marathwada, once part of Hyderabad’s Nizam, for a long time has been the epicenter of an agrarian crisis, with perennial drought, farmer suicides (4,100 in four years) and agitation by caste groups. The area has been a hotbed of Hindutva politics since Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde established the BJP here three decades ago.

At present, of the eight parliamentary constituencies in Marathwada BJP holds three; Shiv Sena, three; and Congress, two.

The cash-rich Maharashtra Sugar Belt comprises 12 constituencies and was dominated by the Congress and NCP in the past. Congress-NCP (6) and BJP-Sena (6) got equal representation here in the previous polls.

The Congress-NCP alliance is fighting hard to regain its grip in the region. New political factors such as Raju Shetti’s switch to the opposition might upset the prospects of the NDA in a few seats. Congress is contesting three seats, NCP will fight on seven while SSS will field two candidates in the region.

North Maharashtra includes six lower house seats – Nashik, Jalgaon, Raver, Dindori, Nandurbar (Scheduled Tribes) and Dhule. NDA holds them all.

This time, the region, which is known for growing onions and grapes, faces drought that has hit the farmers hard. Underdevelopment of the region is another key factor.

BJP will contest five constituencies here while Sena will contest only Nashik. Congress and NCP will contest three each.

Despite tall claims, the NDA is expected to lose a few seats in all the three regions owing to rising joblessness, farm crisis and caste disagreements, say observers.

The opposition has its own miseries. Some of its members, including family members of stalwarts, have defected to BJP-Shiv Sena.

However, cashing in on anti-incumbency and the likely absence of any “wave” this time, Congress and NCP may be able to double their tally, from six to 12, in these regions.

“Congress and NCP lag much behind the ruling alliance,” said Mandar Parkar, a political analyst. “Had the opposition inked the alliance in time, taken more outfits into their fold and started campaigning aggressively a little early, they could have won some more seats.”

(This is the third of a three-part series. Click here for the first and second.)