Column | How Khattar, Fadnavis held ground despite unease among caste groups

How Khattar, Fadnavis held ground despite unease among caste groups
Manohar Lal Khattar, Devendra Fadnavis

Caste agitations unless handled spontaneously and with tact have a habit of boomeranging on chief ministers. The latest to almost fall victim to feelings of alienation in powerful castes are Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana and Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra. Strong use of police force on agitators too linger in the minds, and there was brewing discontent against the ruling party in these states. Negative action against taken strong grassroots leaders of communities after all provokes negative feelings.

The Jat agitation demanding reservation three years ago had shook Haryana after the BJP had cobbled together a rainbow coalition of non-Jat castes, which had been fed up with the long rule of Jat chief ministers of both the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal. In late 2014, Khattar, a Punjabi, was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the chief minister after BJP tasted success. Then the BJP, which normally tied up with the INLD, had made a bold decision that Modi's charisma can still work for the party. It did work in the 2014 state polls and the party candidates won even in non-Jat areas, likely also benefitting from the split in Jat votes between the Congress and the INLD. But when Jats went on a rampage demanding higher reservation in services and other facilities, Khattar tried persuasion and then strong police action. Interestingly, later he agreed to several of the demands but the disquiet persisted till the polling day this month. Now, the BJP is set to form the government again under Khattar with support of INLD's successor Jannayak Janata Party of Dushyant Chautala as well as a clutch of independent MLAs.

For Fadnavis, there was a similar, though less violent agitation by the Marathas, who were mobilised across the big state of Maharashtra, demanding reservation in jobs. Fadnavis, who had given higher representation to Marathas, compared to the central cabinet offer, had conceded the demand. But legal and procedural delays kept the proposal hanging fire. When the BJP swept the Lok Sabha elections again in 2019, Fadnavis could notify the reservation, but he wanted a total sweep of Maratha votes. That is why he chose big sugar and milk barons of this influential community, who have been traditionally representing the Congress and its ally the NCP. They were made to defect and the defectors included Udayanraje Bhonsle, the most prominent Maratha parliamentarian outside the Sharad Pawar family.

But all the good work to close the gaps in Maratha-dominated districts came to a nought as the Enforcement Directorate registered a case of money laundering against Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar. Fadnavis, who was taken by surprise by the central decision to go after the Pawars, had to grin and put up a brave face. The perception that BJP and Shiv Sena were not with the Marathas gained ground. Yet Fadnavis managed to hold ground, but his dream of decimating the opposition was unrealised.

Managing aspirations, especially for the scarce government jobs, has been a big struggle in many states. The economic turbulence affecting the private sector has made pensionable permanent employment by the state very attractive. But the trick for chief ministers is to handle political representation in the state cabinet and other layers of government, so that political rivals do not tap into feelings of neglect.

Many chief ministers in the country have to deal with such feelings of alienation. The prolonged Patel agitation in Gujarat after Narendra Modi left the state to become prime minister, had its impact on the BJP, which was otherwise firmly controlling this community for a long period. Capitalising on the Patel unrest and other grievances, the Congress almost came close to defeating the BJP in its most durable stronghold. Similarly, Siddaramaiah lost in Karnataka as he had alienated two major castes -- Vokkaligas and Lingayats -- in his bid to consolidate a backward, dalit and minority combination.

As Jharkhand goes to polls in a few weeks, Chief Minister Raghubar Das has started reaching out to communities which have grievances. Similarly in Delhi, after promising regularisation of unauthorised colonies five years ago, Narendra Modi cabinet now decided to bring them officially into the city map and give ownership rights. But the Aam Aadmi Party which rules the state has claimed it has given water, electricity, roads, sewerage and other amenities except land ownership, which could be vested only by the centre. It is to be seen who wins the battle of perception among the large number of building owners and their families in the national capital as Delhi too go to the polls soon.

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