The Dalit factor

Print edition : November 05, 2004

Dalit voters shift their allegiance to other parties as those claiming to represent them face a leadership crisis.

FOR little over a decade, the Republican Party of India (RPI) has been slowly crumbling. Its factions have made numerous but half-hearted attempts to unite. Now Dalit leaders and their followers are resigned to a fractured RPI. The essential problem lies with a lack of leadership. From being a unified, powerful political party with the legacy of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar the RPI, at last count, had four recognised factions. This does not include the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) led by Prakash Ambedkar, Dr. Ambedkar's grandson.

In this election, these five parties fielded 127 candidates, of which only two won. This in itself is a verdict by the Dalit electorate on parties that claim to represent it in Maharashtra. The RPI groups lost in both reserved and general constituencies. Dalit voters preferred, instead, candidates of the Shiv Sena or even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (abhorred by Dalits because of the BJP's `Manuwadi' politics).

"Lack of vision, no rigour in thinking, petty politics, obsession with power and position" - these are the reasons a Dalit intellectual ascribes to the leadership failure. "They have lost sight of the original goal of Babasaheb and so they have lost their appeal among the people," he says.

As a community, Dalits are politically conscious and there is no doubt that their vote is valuable. Considering that 15 per cent of the total population of the State is Dalit, the move away from the RPI has greatly benefited the other parties but has been disastrous for the community, which now has no focussed political representation. Political parties have derived tremendous mileage from Dalit leaders. And Dalit leaders such as Ramdas Athavale, Prakash Ambedkar, Jogendra Kavade and R.S. Gavai have also benefited at some time or the other from an alliance with the Congress. In the case of the BBM, three MLAs were even lured away to the Congress. However, the community and its needs have not been served by these alliances.

Ramdas Athavale exemplifies the plight of the RPI. Although he is currently the most visible Dalit leader, he has no mass base in the community. His existence is dependent on support from his alliance partners, the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party. In essence he is no longer a Dalit leader; merely a figurehead for the Congress. Even the candidate for Athavale's faction was supplied by the Congress-NCP combine. Suresh `Pappu' Kalani from the RPI (Athavale) faction stood from the Ulhasnagar constituency. Neither Ulhasnagar nor Kalani is remotely connected with Dalit interests but an NCP supported said it was a sure win seat and was given to Athavale to "keep him happy since he is our alliance partner". Kalani's victory was a foregone conclusion because he has tremendous muscle power in Ulhasnagar (he was once detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities [Prevention] Act). But his victory is unlikely to serve the Dalit cause.

It is instances like this that dilute the Dalit vote. Acutely aware of the crisis of leadership, voters have chosen to take their vote elsewhere. Initially, the choice was the Congress-NCP, but their needs were not served. In fact, last year in regions such as Marathwada atrocities on Dalits increased. This was despite a Dalit Chief Minister in office. Dalits at times pinned their hopes on the Shiv Sena. They also might have tried the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had it made an impact in the elections. Asked about the likely impact of the BSP on Dalits, S. Daithankar, a retired senior bureaucrat who continues to be active in Dalit affairs, says: "Mayawati does not understand the Dalit movement here. She does not know the extent to which we have advanced. Our goals and her goals are not the same. The BSP is high-handed and is disliked in the State. Who are her workers and leaders in the State? She has none of any significance."

Since the various factions of the RPI are concentrating on gaining political power, dalliance with other political parties is common. With faith in the Congress and the NCP fast diminishing and the BSP failingto make an impact, Dalit voters have been gradually turning to the Shiv Sena-BJP. Thus Prakash Ambedkar has spoken of an "issue-based alliance" with the Shiv Sena. And Namdeo Dhasal, a former Dalit Panthers leader, has been a Shiv Sena member for some time.

There was even a recent attempt in which Prakash Ambedkar, Sharad Joshi of the Shetkari Sanghatana, Datta Meghe of the NCP and Banwarilal Purohit of the Vidarbha Rajya Party came together to form a separate front to demand statehood. The irony of Prakash Ambedkar's involvement in this was that the separate statehood demand is one that has been assiduously promoted by the BJP.

The Dalit link with the Shiv Sena has historical associations. Bal Thackeray's father Prabhodhankar Thackeray was a champion of the Dalit cause as well as a respected figure in the early years of Maharashtra politics. Though, at the social level the Shiv Sena does not discriminate against Dalits, its recent commitment to Hindutva is unacceptable to Dalits.

Moreover, the Shiv Sena-Dalit relationship does have a turbulent history. At the peak of the Dalit Panthers movement in the 1970s the Shiv Sena is believed to have been responsible for the killing of its leader Bhagwat Jadhav. The party was also vehemently opposed to the Congress government's decision to rename the Marathwada University as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University. Its hostility to Babasaheb Ambedkar's book Riddles of Hinduism was fierce as was its opposition to reservation in employment and education. The Shiv Sena's antagonism to Dalits peaked in the 1990s when under the Shiv Sena-BJP regime, police fired on and killed 10 Dalits in a slum in Mumbai.

So what are the political alternatives for the Dalit community in Maharashtra? "We need to refocus the RPI. Obviously, other parties will not put Dalit interests to the fore. They just want a winning candidate. Then, whether the person is Dalit or not, is of no interest to them. Whereas if there is a Dalit party then yes, of course a winning candidate is vital but we also take pride in the fact that the candidate is a Dalit. That is the crucial difference between a Dalit party and a non-Dalit party and that is the difference that helps the community," says Daithankar.

For Maharashtra's staunch Ambedkarites, the ultimate goal is to see that Ambedkar's goal of democracy for Dalits is fulfilled. His vision was to achieve a situation where there is no need to differentiate Dalits from others. Daithankar said: "This will be the ultimate triumph of democracy for Babasaheb. When there are no special constituencies, no Dalit label for candidates, no Dalit vote bank, it will mean that Dalits are part of the mainstream and have achieved what Babasaheb dreamt of - the destruction of the caste system."

He added: "The tragedy of the Dalits in Maharashtra today is that though they have a vote, a voice and political consciousness, they lack leaders. The leaders have lost touch with the people."

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