Making deals

Published : Jul 15, 2011 00:00 IST

Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray (centre) and executive president Uddhav Thackeray with RPI leader Ramdas Athavale (right) in Mumbai on June 9. - HANDOUT

Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray (centre) and executive president Uddhav Thackeray with RPI leader Ramdas Athavale (right) in Mumbai on June 9. - HANDOUT

A political realignment is in the offing as RPI leader Ramdas Athavale forges an alliance with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine.

THE turmoil in Maharashtra politics is finally out in the open. The first rumblings were felt in February when Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale indicated that he was unhappy with the ruling Democratic Front (D.F.) and was considering allying with the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. This sensational announcement came after Athavale met Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray to wish him on his birthday. Apparently, the Sena leader came up with the idea of Shiv shakti (power) and Bhim shakti joining forces to become a formidable power in the State.

Athavale, who had felt sidelined and slighted by the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine since his defeat in the 2009 election, seems to have jumped at the invitation. So in a matter of five months the idea of aligning with the saffron parties culminated in a public announcement that the Athavale faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI-A) was shifting allegiance.

Thackeray's effort to rope in the RPI(A) got enthusiastic support from BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who saw it as a political coup that would rejuvenate a stagnant and fractious State party unit. Meanwhile, the departure of the RPI(A) has put the Congress-NCP ties on the rocks once again. The two D.F. constituents have always been like a never quite settled couple (in the words of a Marathi theatre personality).

On June 9, the Sena-BJP organised a massive rally at Azad Maidan in Mumbai ostensibly to protest against corruption and price rise, among other issues that have affected the common man. In reality, it was staged to announce Athavale's decision to join the Sena-BJP fold. Some two lakh supporters were expected to converge at the maidan, but inclement weather reduced the number by half. That the rally was a momentous occasion for the leaders of the Sena, the BJP and the RPI(A) was more than apparent. The Sena's move to co-opt a prominent Dalit leader was deft, although this was not the first time that a Dalit leader had turned to it for political reasons. The positive outcome of the move for the BJP, troubled by faction fights, was evident.

Squabbles among supporters of Gadkari and senior party leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde had been on the increase ever since BJP politician Pramod Mahajan's death in 2006. Munde, who is the Deputy Leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, owed his rise in State politics to Mahajan. Mahajan's death naturally reduced his prominence. Gadkari and Munde, the two rival BJP leaders from the State, have locked horns over every conceivable point with Gadkari always emerging the winner. Gadkari was elevated to national politics while Munde remained in State politics without a big role. During his rise in the party, Gadkari consolidated his home base by installing his trusted men in key State party posts, alienating his old rival further. A frustrated Munde finally resorted to mumbling threats about leaving the BJP. With his upbringing in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Munde is a committed Hindutva ideologue. Munde still has a solid base in the BJP unlike Athavale and the rest of the fragmented RPI.


Factionalism in the RPI has reached such a point over the years that it looks like the party is there for the leaders rather than the leaders being there for the party. This is particularly so in the case of the flamboyant Athavale. The Azad Maidan rally was perhaps important for Athavale as an individual. He saw this as an opportunity to emerge from political wilderness.

Although Athavale leads the largest faction of the RPI, he is known more as a self-serving politician than as a leader of Dalits. The very state of Dalit politics of which he is supposed to be the most prominent leader is an indication of this. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Athavale lost the Shirdi parliamentary seat. He blamed the D.F. leaders for his defeat and never quite forgave them for it. In the subsequent Assembly elections, he tried to reclaim political ground by forming a third front with the Left and socialist groups. But this effort, too, came to nought.

His decision to shift allegiance to the saffron parties is seen as political expediency. Political observers say that while the new alliance may help resurrect Athavale the politician, it may put an end to Dalit politics. At one point of time in the State, the RPI was a robust force that Dalits in remote villages could rely on. Indeed, Dalits participated wholeheartedly in the political process. Athavale perhaps recognises the fact that the Dalit force has been expended but nonetheless wants to play the cards safe to retain his personal identity in politics.

Although unhappy with Athavale's decision to embrace the Sena-BJP, the Congress-NCP sees an opportunity in the vacuum created in Dalit politics. The NCP attempted to enter the arena by organising a Samajik Samata Parishad, or conference for social equality and justice. By holding the conference on the foundation day of the NCP and thereby implying that the status of the cause was elevated, the party hoped to strike an emotional chord with Dalits. The NCP pilloried Athavale as an opportunistic turncoat and a politician who compromised his ideology for personal gain. In 1990, Athavale was a Cabinet Minister in the Sharad Pawar-led Congress government. (Pawar formed the NCP in 1999.)

The strange twists and turns in politics were never more evident than when the Sena-BJP welcomed Athavale into its fold saying it was a natural union of Bhim shakti and Shiv shakti. But observers say there is nothing natural about the union since neither the Sena nor the BJP has traditionally supported Dalit causes. In fact, one of the most notable instances of anti-Dalit violence took place in Aurangabad in the 1970s when Shiv Sainiks reacted to Dalits' demand to rename Marathwada University as Babasaheb Ambedkar University.

The irony of the current union of Dalit and saffron forces is deepened by the fact that it has been initiated by Bal Thackeray, who strongly opposed the renaming of the university.

Putting aside the ideological conflicts, there is some hard-headed politics in the Sena-BJP's joyful embrace of Athavale. Civic elections are due to be held in the State later this year. While the Sena has retained the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for a number of years, there has been some apprehension in the party ever since Raj Thackeray broke away and formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006. The fledgling party has held its own. Raj continues to be a threat to the Sena. In this context, the alignment with Athavale can be useful to the Sena.

There is a bit of a conundrum here. While Athavale's hold on Dalit voters is severely diminished when it comes to garnering votes in Assembly elections, his call may be heeded in the elections to the BMC. There are some Dalit strongholds in Mumbai and they are likely to rally around Athavale.

The results of the civic elections could provide an interesting insight into the dynamics of urban power economics versus caste loyalties. It must be remembered that the BMC is the richest civic body in the country and its annual budget is larger than that of some of the smaller States of north-eastern India. If at all the Congress-NCP feels the loss of the RPI(A)'s support it will be in the BMC. By allying with the Sena-BJP, Athavale has strengthened the saffron combine's hold over the BMC, whereas the Congress and the NCP are unlikely to fight the election as a team in view of factionalism.

Athavale's actions have angered other Dalit factions, such as the groups led by B.D. Khobragade and Jogendra Kawade, who see it as a betrayal of Dalit pride and B.R. Ambedkar's principles. Athavale has maintained that the move is to promote social change and has nothing to do with politics. In the much fragmented Dalit politics in the State, the Athavale faction is the largest and is the most active with a presence in all parts of the State except perhaps in western Vidarbha where Prakash Ambedkar holds sway.

While there are at least nine factions of the original RPI, only two are of any relevance now. With an 18 per cent vote share, Dalits can tilt the outcome of any election, but this power has never been exercised in view of infighting. If anything, Athavale's move has established the fact that Dalits of Maharashtra have no one to speak up for them politically.

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