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Dalit Politics in Maharashtra

In their bid to maintain political visibility, various factions of the Republican Party of India have struck up alliances with "secular" and "non-secular" parties. They have not adequately utilised the progressive undercurrents of the dalit consciousness to connect with other deprived communities to form a dynamic coalition.






Dalit Politics in Maharashtra

Harish S Wankhede

elections mean for the future of dalit politics in the state. The results show that the celebrated political ideals of the dalit movement are caught in a crisis and in the absence

In their bid to maintain political visibility, various factions of the Republican Party of India have struck up alliances with “secular” and “non-secular” parties. They have not adequately utilised the progressive undercurrents of the dalit consciousness to connect with other deprived communities to form a dynamic coalition.

Harish S Wankhede ( teaches at the Ram Lal Anand College (Evening), Delhi University, New Delhi.

he results of the recently concluded municipal and zilla parishad elections in Maharashtra have been analysed in terms of “gains and losses” between the two dominant political alliances, the Shiv Sena (SS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on one side and the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on the other. However, these elections also saw one of the factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) allied with the saffron combine with the slogan “Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti”. The RPI led by Ramdas Athavale argued that the persistent failure of the Congress Party in accommodating the voice of the dalits in its mainstream agenda forced him to choose the bête noire of dalit politics, the SS-BJP. Dalit poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal echoed Athavale when he said that this alliance would free the dalits from the Congress Party and help build a new politics in Maharashtra. A critical appraisal is in order therefore to see what the results of these

Economic & Political Weekly

april 21, 2012 vol xlviI no 16

of the dominant discursive theme of dalit emancipation can no longer be identified as the political ideology of the oppressed. The various RPI factions are reduced to insignificant locations with token presence and the party’s earlier capacity to bargain for exclusive projects for the welfare of dalits has also dwindled considerably. The recourse to “alliance-politics” overtly represents the myopic vision of the dalit leadership which is strategising mainly to remain visible in the political scenario of Maharashtra without bothering about the principle ideals of the dalit movement.

RPI’s Insipid Performance

Municipal elections in the 12 major cities in the state took place on 16 February. For the two conventional rival alliances the Congress-NCP and the SS-BJP the results were a mixed bag. Cities like Pune, Pimpri, Solapur and Amravati witnessed the dominance of the Congress-NCP combine whereas in Mumbai, Thane, Nagpur, Ulhasnagar and Akola, the


SS-BJP emerged as the winner. The SS-BJP successfully maintained their dominance over the much coveted Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Interestingly, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) performed exceptionally well in most of the municipalities and also became a decisive force in the Nashik region (where it won 40 seats out of 122). The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) significantly improved its tally in the local bodies as it won 25 seats in all (Nagpur 12, Amravati six, Solapur three, and two each in Thane and Ulhasnagar). The Samajwadi Party also retained its impressive space in Mumbai with nine seats (it came second in 20 others). In this context, the RPI’s performance was extremely disappointing.

The major factions of the RPI each went with two rival groups in the municipal elections. The RPI (Athavale) contested all the municipal elections in alliance with the SS-BJP combine. The other two important groups (one headed by Prakash Ambedkar’s (Bahujan Mahasangh (BM), and that by Sulekha Kumbhare and Jogendra Kawade) contested in alliance with the the NCP-Congress. The SS-BJP alliance offered the RPI-A a signifi cant number of seats in most of the regions, though the results were dissatisfactory on all accounts. In no municipal corporation did it win more than two wards and only in Nashik is its performance worth mentioning. There it won a respectable number of six seats. The results for the other factions of the RPI were also poor. It is only in the Akola municipal elections that the RPI (Ambedkar) being an ally of the “secular alliance” showed a little might. It won seven seats and got the mayoral post. Apart from Nashik and Akola, both the RPI factions failed to make an impression.

Dalit Voters

In the first decade following Independence, Maharashtra remained a frontal site of dalit activism under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar. He visualised the RPI as a liberal mass-based political organisation but his sudden demise in 1956 left the party unprepared to face obstacles. Since its inception (1956), it struggled hard to make an impact over the electorate and was dubbed as a “Neo-Buddhist party”. The Congress was the first to exploit the situation. Influential leaders of the RPI were co-opted and an alternative dalit leadership was developed by the Congress. In the later stages it formed a token alliance with the RPI to infl uence and mobilise the dalit voters.1 With the rise of parochial right-wing politics in the state, the RPI formed a secular alliance with the Congress to keep the SS-BJP combine out of power. However, such alliances mostly treated the RPI as a means to impress the dalit voters rather than as a representative body of the dalit constituency. Till recently dalit voters remained committed to secular politics and rallied behind the Congress.

The latest RPI (Athavale) alliance with the SS-BJP radically challenged the popular assumptions that the dalits had about their secular commitments. In most of the wards, dalits form a signifi cant vote bank and are infl uential in tilting the results and as is well known even a small diversion of votes can have a dramatic influence in the local elections. Athavale has a considerable following among the dalits in Mumbai, Thane and Ulhasnagar. This shift of dalit voters proved significant in electing many SS-BJP candidates, especially in the BMC polls (candidates from the saffron combine won elections from Dharavi and Sidharth Colony due to active support from the RPI in these areas). However, most of the RPI (Athavale) candidates lost the elections miserably. While the dalits voted for the SS-BJP alliance the traditional saffron voters did not return the favour.

The results also show that in these elections the dalits voted for the non-secular political outfits. This is seen from the seats won by the MNS in Thane and Mumbai. It performed impressively well in the reserved constituencies and the wards dominated by the dalit population (all seven wards in Dadar and a substantial number of wards in Mahim, both with a strong dalit presence). In most of the wards, in which the MNS stood second (i e, in more than 80 seats) the MNS received considerable support from the dalits and Muslims. This is also true of Nashik where the dalit population is considerable.

On other fronts the dalits voted for the available alternatives that they considered better than the RPI. For example, in the


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Vidarbha region (Nagpur and Amravati) the BSP made up an impressive tally. Nagpur which is considered the citadel of the dalit movement showed no mercy to the RPI and it drew a blank in this region. However, by winning 12 seats in the Nagpur municipal election the BSP demonstrated that a signifi cant neo-Buddhist voter section has started adopting it as an alternative to the RPI. The BSP also gained an impressive above 5% vote share in these elections. Due to the presence of existing vibrant dalit movements, this has proved to be a fertile field for the BSP.

All the factions of the RPI, despite the unsatisfactory municipal election results for themselves, have claimed that their alliance partners have won mainly because of the support of the dalit voters. But in reality, the cumulative vote percentage of all the RPI factions has not crossed above 2% in any of the municipal bodies.

Interpreting the Malady

The dalit political movement in Maharashtra under the leadership of the various RPI factions seems to be receiving a short-term dose for a disease that demands a sustained and total treatment. Athavale’s political camaraderie with the saffron combine or that of the “secular alliance” of the RPI with the Congress-NCP fundamentally neglect the need to build assertive socio-economic struggles over the questions of social emancipation and representative democracy under the independent leadership of the socially marginalised communities. Further, such alliances prevent conscious engagement with other marginalised sections, mainly Muslims, tribals and the most backward classes (MBCs) in order to form a unifi ed front against the political establishment dominated by the social elites. Such alliances only offer the RPI factions a parasitic infl uence and keep them as passive players in the power circles of Maharashtra. Their presence thus has no impact on the growing political problems of the dalits and other deprived sections in the state.

The current factions of the RPI are indifferent to the ideas of democratic struggles. They have not adequately utilised the progressive undercurrents of the dalit consciousness to connect with other deprived communities to form a dynamic “umbrella coalition” against the dominant social and political elites. The leadership has remained excluded from most of the concerns of the oppressed masses and made the social and religious movements almost like exclusive clubs, specifi cally related to a certain community (mainly the Mahars). The RPI has failed to provide leadership, ideological orientation and political principles to all groups struggling to achieve a dignified representation in the democratic relationships. In short, the RPI is too weak to be the representative voice of the dalits in Maharashtra.

In the absence of an impressive political alternative to represent their interests the dalits are looking towards parochial parties like the MNS and SS. The sustained failure of secular outfits and the RPI factions in providing concrete remedies to overcome the social and economic maladies of the dalits has brought these parties closer to the dalit voters. Votaries of Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti argue that as a sustained alliance for the future, this can be a creative strategy to bring two contesting communities (dalits and the non-Maratha upper castes) into an alliance to challenge the political control of the Maratha elites represented by the Congress-NCP. Thus the dalit leadership can acquire a respectable position in the power structure of the state and can rebuild its image as an important player in the politics of Maharashtra. The possible merits of this political alliance can signifi cantly infl uence the political culture of Maharashtra and can open new avenues for other dalit groups to rethink about associating with nonsecular political outfits. However, such a game plan for limited political gains can disturb the ethos of the dalit movement in the state.


The results of local elections in Maharashtra demonstrate that the dalit voters are in desperate search of alternatives that can represent their interests in the democratic sites. Their growing distance from the RPI factions and the “secular parties”, has led sections of dalit voters to choose lumpen-parochial options like the SS and the MNS. Such trends spell further damage for the robust and radical dalit sociocultural movement which till recently has provided a strong framework to dalit consciousness.


1 The first alliance was formed between the Congress and Dadasaheb Gaikwad led RPI in late 1960s which later on became the responsible factor for the splinters in the RPI.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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