Opportunistic overtures

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Political compulsions lie at the root of the proposed alliance between the Ramdas Athavale-led faction of the Republican Party of India, which is supposed to represent the Dalit cause, and the Shiv Sena.

in Mumbai

FOR a region that has a history of social revolution, the proposed alliance between the Shiv Sena and the faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI) led by Ramdas Athavale is something of a setback. Such an alliance will work to the advantage of the Sena, but for Dalits the scales are tilted more towards losses than gains.

There was nothing momentous about the occasion when Athavale and the Shiv Sena's newly anointed leader, Uddhav Thackeray, met in mid-February. The occasion was the installation of a portrait of Prabhodhankar Thackeray, father of Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and a leader of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, at Mumbai University. Both Uddhav Thackeray and Athavale were invited to the function, which was the outcome of an initiative taken by Arun Kamble, a member of the now defunct organisation of Dalit Panthers and the head of the Department of Marathi at Mumbai University. At the meeting, Uddhav Thackeray extended an offer of active cooperation to the Athavale faction.

Given the history of the Sena's antagonism to Dalits, one expected Athavale to reject the offer. However, he said that if the Sena was willing to forgo its commitment to Hindutva, he would consider the offer. The offer and the response are seen as opportunistic political moves in the period ahead of the State Assembly elections that are due in 2004.

Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of another faction of the RPI and grandson of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, dismissed it as a non-event. He said he had asked for a survey of the 1,700 or so publications in the State for public and media responses to the meeting and that he was not surprised to find that they had ignored it.

Another prominent Dalit activist, S. Daithankar, a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who works for the welfare of his community, said: "It is significant that the Sena has extended this offer of active cooperation to one faction of the RPI. Ramdas Athavale does not represent all of the RPI or all Dalits. Why has he been approached? It has to be understood that the offer was made keeping in mind the realities of State politics. Vilasrao Deshmukh, a Maratha, is no longer at the head of State politics. Sushilkumar Shinde was made the Chief Minister because of his merit, but you cannot forget that he is a Dalit. In the all-India context, choosing a Dalit to lead Maharashtra at this particular political juncture is a relevant and important factor. With this open offer, the Sena is sending a message of support to Bhim Shakti [Ambedkarites], telling it that if they work together they can make Maharashtra prosperous."

However, two facts cannot be ignored. One, if the RPI (Athavale) accepts the Sena's offer it will destabilise the Dalit movement. Two, the RPI leadership has failed to gauge the feelings of the Dalit community at large.

Dalit perceptions of the Sena are primarily negative. The Sena had played a major part in the violence in 1994 after the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University (Frontline Cover Story, February 11, 1994). The Sena blew out of proportion certain remarks made by Dr. Ambedkar in his work Riddles of Hinduism and demanded a ban on its publication. The Sena has rejected the idea of reservation for Dalits in education or in jobs. During the riots in the BDD chawls in Mumbai in 1974, Sainiks clashed with RPI activists. And it was during Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party rule in Maharashtra that 11 Dalits were killed in police firing in Ramabai Nagar, in Mumbai (Frontline Cover Story, August 8, 1997).

Yet, what explains the offer? "Frustration at all levels of the RPI is causing this to be seen as a welcome opportunity," says Daithankar. "The timing of the Sena's move is very good. Dalits are actually seeing hope in the Sena. The Sena is on a good wicket - it will not lose anything. Athavale will suffer. The movement among youngsters has started. Young Dalits, who have not seen the revolutionary days, are actually joining the Sena. There is such keenness to have a strong ally and such disgust with the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) and the Congress(I) that second-line Dalit leaders (not necessarily RPI members) have been bypassing Athavale to speak directly to the Thackerays."

Professor B. L. Bhole, social activist and former Professor of Political Science at Nagpur University, believes that Athavale is not in favour of an alliance and that the second-line leadership of the party is pressuring him. NCP leader and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar is seen as a declining force in the State and Athavale's supporters are urging him to sever the connection with a party that has brought them no tangible political benefits. Bhole said: "They do not realise the cost involved in looking elsewhere. Ambedkar believed in democratic principles. The Sena does not. Ambedkar abhorred the personality cult. That is precisely what the Sena is based on. Ambedkar wanted to empower the people. The Sena uses emotional issues to create turmoil. Social change was Ambedkar's goal. Power-grabbing is that of the Sena. Constitutional morality guided Ambedkar. This is conspicuously absent in the Sena, which believes only in extraconstitutional powers."

MEANWHILE, questions have been raised about the genuineness of the offer. It is believed that Athavale brought up the issue of Hindutva at the function to use it as a bargaining tool in future negotiations. According to some of his followers, Hindutva is not a real impediment to Athavale as far as an alliance is concerned. While Bhole believes that the Left parties and the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) are the natural political allies of Dalits, Daithankar says that socially and at the village level, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who constitute the majority of Sena supporters and workers, are closer to Dalits than the Marathas. Both agree that the RPI is a puppet of the Congress(I) and the NCP.

The workers and the second-line leaders of the RPI are disappointed and frustrated with the party's association with the Congress(I) and the NCP. Although the RPI (Athavale) has supported Pawar in every election, it has received no tangible political benefits from such support. The pre-election understanding that 30 per cent of posts will go to the RPI has not materialised. No one from the Athavale group was made a Minister. "The NCP keeps Ramdas Athavale in good humour and treats the rest like slaves," said a party functionary. "Since they believed in Athavale, they tolerated it. Now the tolerance limit has been crossed."

It has been pointed out that Pawar is not interested in bringing together the various factions of the RPI. Moreover, the main centres of power in the State, from the village level to Mumbai, are controlled by the Maratha community. "The old feudal lords have promoted themselves in the new democratic system," says Daithankar.

"Pawar will use the names of Babasaheb, Mahatma Phule and Shahu Maharaj to suit his convenience but he will see to it that Dalits are kept in lower positions. They will never rise above a certain position," says a Dalit functionary. The appointment of Sushilkumar Shinde as Chief Minister and the Sena's offer are both acknowledgements of the power of the Dalit vote.

Bhole believes that a large part of the problem lies with the way Ambedkar was presented by Dalits. "They did not project him as a secular and democratic parliamentarian. Instead, he became the victim of a personality cult. Therefore, he was not shown as an opponent of Hinduism. This has made it easier for Hindu forces to appropriate him. Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha - he was dead against all this, but the Dalit movement never underscored these aspects. There is a Sanskritisation effect in the Dalit forces now. This is the factor behind the sena's new move."

The political opportunism involved in the Sena's offer is apparent enough. When the Sena-BJP combine was in power in the State, it had given about 12 seats to members of the Chamar community. Not a single seat was given to Mahars (neo-Buddhists) since Mahars have had a long alliance with the Congress and the NCP. However, with elections due next year and dissatisfaction apparent within the RPI, the Sena is preparing the ground to win over the Mahars and thus a large chunk of Dalit votes.

THE RPI plays a significant role in Maharashtra politics. It has what Daithankar calls "nuisance value at the time of elections", that is, the power to influence marginal votes. In intense contests between major parties, the marginal vote helps tilt the balance. In Maharashtra, most of these votes come from neo-Buddhists. Unfortunately, the RPI leadership does not recognise this fact. Athavale, who is supposed to command the support of the largest number of Dalits, has severe limitations. Chief among them is his inability to "socialise" politically. One of the reasons he has chosen to stay with Pawar is that he has a level of comfort with the NCP leader.

The RPI has no pretensions about being a significant power on its own. Its leaders also accept the fact that for the moment the RPI is not a united party. No leader is working towards the unification of the factions. At the village level, Dalits are organised and politically aware, especially the Mahars. Daithankar says: "There may be only one Dalit family in the village, but it will fly the flag of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dalits are present everywhere. The only problem is that they are divided. If they stand united, the RPI can even rule the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. In Mumbai the power of Dalits is great because of rural migration. Of the documented 40 per cent of migrants who enter the city, 95 per cent are Dalits. Yet, they have not won even a single ward in Mumbai, because of factionalism."

When there is an incident, for instance a police firing, in a Dalit slum, the entire community comes together. "The people are together for the cause but the leaders are fractious," says Daithankar. His observation sums up the crisis in the Dalit leadership today. In terms of number of supporters, Athavale is believed to have the largest political following, but in terms of commitment to the Dalit movement and cause, Prakash Ambedkar is believed to command more support. Both these leaders resist any attempt to unify them.

The Sena is trying to take advantage of this state of affairs. It is using Athavale to try and destroy the political clout of Pawar, who has always been a big political threat to the Sena. Athavale is seen as the weak link in the RPI. Though he has a large following, he has been unable to prove himself. While Prakash Ambedkar's faction got three Cabinet berths, the Athavale faction got none, despite his alliance with the NCP.

So far various important players in Maharashtra politics have not reacted to the proposed alliance. Perhaps they do not believe it will happen. The NCP magazine Rashtravadi published an article claiming that Athavale engineered the alliance offer in an attempt to twist the NCP's arm. Political observers say the offer will come to fruition a few months before the next round of elections.

Isolated working examples of Sena-RPI alliance already exist in some local bodies in the State. However, at the moment the Shiv Sena has cleverly left the offer open. It is not insisting that the RPI accept Hindutva; it is seeking a political alliance. It can afford to wait since it will be the ultimate beneficiary.

The point is that Dalits already have the law on their side. They have the numbers. Social reforms have already been initiated. There is no indication that an alliance with the Sena will be any better than an alliance with the Congress(I) or the NCP. What is required is a united RPI, but that, tragically, is something the party's own leaders are opposed to.

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