On July 23, Devendra Fadnavis became the second chief minister of Maharashtra — after Manohar Joshi in 1997 — to recuse himself from performing the traditional Ashadhi Ekadashi puja at the Viththal temple in Pandharpur.
Fadnavis’s decision came after agitators demanding reservation for the Maratha community threatened to not allow him entry into Pandharpur, accusing his government “of not being serious” about the quota issue.
Devendra Fadnavis after the Pandharpur puja in 2016. (Photo: Twitter)
Fadnavis claimed that the agitators had planned to create a stampede-like situation in the temple town — where around 10 lakh devotees would be gathered — if he visited it, and he did not want to put devotees' lives at risk. Joshi, too, had taken a similar step in 1997 after the police had opened fire on protesting Dalits in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar area.
The Fadnavis government has claimed that the anticipated clash in Pandharpur was part of a larger conspiracy to embarrass it, with the agitators wanting to create a “Govari-like” situation in the holy town.
Politicians in Maharashtra are still unnerved by the mention of the Govari stampede of 1994. Around one lakh members of the tribal Govari community had gathered outside the legislature in Nagpur on November 23, 1994, demanding scheduled tribe status for the community so they could avail reservation benefits. The police had caned them out, which led to a stampede, leaving 114 people dead. This incident became one of the reasons for the defeat of the Sharad Pawar-led Congress government in the next year’s election.
“The plot in Pandharpur was a similar one,” says a Maratha minister. “If some devotees had died in the stampede, it would have become a tool for the Opposition to corner the CM before the next year’s elections.”
Fadnavis is the first chief minister of Maharashtra to face agitations at regular intervals, ever since he took over the reins of the state on October 30, 2014. The Marathas have come out on the streets 58 times, demanding reservation. Farmers have gone on strike demanding better prices for their produce. Tribals held a long march demanding forest land to be registered in their name, milk producers tried to stop milk supply to Mumbai demanding Rs 5 grant per litre, farmers agitated against Fadnavis’s brainchild, the Nagpur-Mumbai Super Communication Expressway (popularly known as Samruddhi Corridor), and students have protested because of examination goof-ups by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC).
In Fadnavis's tenure, the Marathas have come out on the streets 58 times, demanding reservation. (Photo: PTI/File)
A popular theory says that Fadnavis has been incessantly targeted by the Opposition because he is a Brahmin. Maratha leaders have supposedly not been able to digest the fact that a Brahmin has become the chief minister, when the community’s population is hardly 3.5 per cent, against the 35 per cent Marathas.
Sharad Pawar, the tallest Maratha leader, too had evoked Fadnavis’s caste when the BJP nominated Chhattrapati Sambhaji, a descendent of Chhatrapati Shivaji, to the Rajya Sabha in 2016. “Earlier, the Chhatrapati used to appoint a Peshava (Brahmin prime minister). Now, a Peshava has appointed a Chhatrapati,” he had said.
However, Fadnavis himself rejected this theory long ago. He says there have been agitations because the Opposition wants to destabilise a “performing government”. On July 19, he informed the Vidhan Sabha that his government had taken various measures for the benefit of Maratha students, such as concession on educational fee, hostels, more admissions to skill development courses, and monetary support to start businesses.
The growing aspirations of every class of society is another reason for the agitations against the Fadnavis government. The people looked at the Fadnavis government as a "saviour", as they were fed up of the Congress-NCP marked by corruption and policy paralysis. They feel disappointed as they are still struggling with the system.
Fadnavis introduced the Right to Service Act to deliver 377 services on time at people's doorstep, but that has not satisfied them. They want more. They want better living standards, transport, employment opportunities, housing, and something that they can feel proud of.
No doubt the frequent agitations are political, but they will die a natural death the moment people start feeling proud of Fadnavis. That is not happening at present.