Maharashtra’s social contract is fraying. Its political elites cannot comprehend, or handle, the situation.
Besides completing 56 years as a linguistic state on May 1, this year also marks the completion of six decades since major Marathi-speaking territories came together administratively and politically in 1956 — albeit as part of a bilingual experiment. However, current circumstances would hardly allow the state to celebrate. Maharashtra has been in the news for the wrong reasons and it looks like the social pact that marked the basis of the coming together of Marathi-speaking people and regions has been under severe strain.
Governed by a BJP-led coalition, political alignments in the state appear too fragile to be able to strengthen the social contract or even reduce the strain. The ruling coalition is on the brink — the Shiv Sena has been more active as “opposition” than as partner in power. The two Congress parties are in refusal mode, denying there is anything wrong with them and their past record in government. They are also inadequate as opposition, either in the routine sense or in the sense of having an alternative vision. Given the political equations among parties, the political elite is unlikely to have the space to think of the long term or mend the cracks in the polity.
Only recently, the ruling coalition was under strain from the repeated remarks of the then advocate general concerning the state’s unity. He favoured the formation of a separate state of Vidarbha. He also suggested that Marathwada, too, needs to be separated from Maharashtra. Questions of propriety notwithstanding, his utterances represent a longstanding crack — the regional imbalance in the state. Marathwada may not actually demand separation but the fact remains that it suffers from industrial backwardness and severe drought and famine, affecting its agrarian economy almost beyond repair. The political acumen shown by Maharashtra’s first chief minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, has be-en lacking and the state has only witnessed manipulations to keep dissatisfaction under control in both Vidarbha and Marathwada. Since the bifurcation of UP and Bihar, the trend has been to create smaller or at least moderately sized states, even though the same language is spoken. The formation of Telangana has kindled hope among the proponents of a separate Vidarbha and it seems the political elite, mainly from western Maharashtra, does not have a satisfactory response to this challenge. As the state’s economy moves from crisis to crisis, the issue of backwardness becomes more acute.
At a more general level, but particularly in the backward regions, the issue of farmer suicide has assumed severe proportions, although for almost a decade, the state managed to wish away the issue with only contingent measures. This year, it has been accompanied by a water crisis afflicting both urban and rural areas. This crisis was waiting to happen, given that Maharashtra’s performance in improving irrigation facilities has been abysmal. The desperate measures of cutting water supply to industry and pushing the IPL out, though justifiable as last-minute efforts to economise, do not hide the lack of foresight and planning. In a sense, both farmer suicide — representing the larger malaise of agrarian crisis — and water scarcity indicate the policy vacuum in which governance has been taking place for many years. “Governance by package” has replaced “governance by policy” for the past two decades — ironically, this began with the first non-Congress government led by the Shiv Sena. Now that the BJP and Sena are back in power, they are presiding over the same tradition faithfully continued by their rivals between 1999 and 2014.
Both the agrarian and water crises bring to the fore the older tension policymakers faced: In order to balance the urban industrial interests and rural agricultural interests, the state chose to often yield to the terms dictated by industry and then selectively protected only some agricultural interests. This resulted in the chaotic growth of the Mumbai-Thane belt. On the other hand, this meant that in regional terms, farmers from western Maharashtra benefited more; in terms of land ownership, small/ marginal farmers were left in the lurch, and the interests of sugarcane and some other cash-crop-growers got state protection. These choices led to multiple distortions in the political economy, for which the state is paying a heavy penalty now.
While the water and agrarian crises exacerbate the regional imbalance, the latter, in particular, also has the potential to develop into an issue of major social tension. The main agricultural community, the Marathas, is already restive and demanding OBC status. The previous Congress-NCP government conceded this demand knowing it would hit the judicial deadlock. In the context of agitations by Patels and Jats, social unrest is only waiting to erupt in Maharashtra because of the numeric clout of Marathas and the economic clout of the elite from that community, on the one hand, and the consistent economic stagnation that a majority of rural Marathas have been facing, on the other. Like Patels and Jats, the unrest among Marathas has less to do with social backwardness and more with the economic distortions.
Similarly, a major nomadic community, the Dhangar, has been demanding that it be included in the ST category. Again, most political parties have indicated that they support this demand, creating expectations but not fulfilling them. Even if the state were to recommend inclusion in the ST category, it would meet with stiff opposition from Adivasis, resulting in social tension and mutual suspicion among communities. While these rumblings are symptomatic of the larger issue of handling community aspirations and maintaining the delicate balance attained on the social justice front, the state-specific failures are too obvious.
While the state is sitting on top of a political economy of chaos and a social contract that is breaking down, the political elite has lost the capacity to comprehend, leave aside handle, the situation. But even if the elite were to understand the complication, they do not have the trust of the public or legitimacy to address these issues. They would, indeed, get elected and re-elected, but their attempts to broker peace among battling sections and convince people of long-term solutions are unlikely to be received with sympathy. In the absence of leaders with legitimacy, Maharashtra seems to be moving towards a politics marked by a rabid mobilisational precipice.