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Fiery Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale has turned into a court jester in BJP’s durbar

Once an activist fighting caste oppression, Athawale now cosies up to the ruling party of the day, achieving not much more than his own elevation.

There is nothing funny about the attack on Dalit youth in Una, Gujarat, by self-styled cow fanatics. Yet, Ramdas Athawale, a Dalit leader for four decades and junior minister in the Central cabinet, used casual humour and unedifying verse while speaking on the attack recently in the Rajya Sabha.

He deplored the attack, then hastened to assure the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that “Dalits are with you” and commended the party for taking action against the attackers. Somewhere in between, he managed to draw attention to his new ministerial position, mocked the Congress for keeping it away from him for years when they were in power and made Members of Parliament laugh.

The speech was a typical Athawale performance: a bit of a ramble, references to centuries-old oppression of Dalits, reiteration of his dedication to Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, liberal mentions of himself, use of high emotion and generous amounts of humour, verse in which Hindi and Marathi words uncomfortably co-exist, sharp digs at the opposition, and praise for his current ally or favourite leader.

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In Athawale’s universe, condemnation of the July 11 Una attack on the four Dalit leather tanners for skinning a dead cow and heaping praise on the BJP leadership in the same speech is not a contradiction. He could have just as easily heaped criticism on the BJP if he were on the other side of the aisle.

This he had done as a Lok Sabha MP in 2003, during a speech against the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His Republican Party of India (Athawale) was an ally of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party that was in power in Maharashtra at the time.

Knowing his penchant for puerile rhymes, the then Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi gave time to Athawale to defuse a tense situation. And Athawale delivered.

Atalji ki sarkar bahut hai chaalu,
Yeh sarkar viruddh mein kya bolu…
Aapke rajya mein gareebon ko nahin mil raha aloo,
Yeh sarkar ke khilaaf bolna mein kaise taalu."
(Atalji’s government is very wily, what can I say against this government...The poor cannot get potatoes in your government, how can I avoid speaking against this government.)

The poet in Vajpayee must have cringed.

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Laughing matter

Athawale’s verses have become the butt of jokes on Dalit-oriented WhatsApp groups and Marathi websites that parody them – and him. As they do his choice of attire – often ultra-colourful, mismatched and dramatic. It is his way of thumbing his nose at the savarna culture of keeping Dalits in tattered clothes.

“I like the good colourful clothes,” he once said to this writer, “Dalits must wear good clothes”. Athawale traces his love for the good things in life to his early days of struggle and edgy living as an activist in the Dalit Panthers Party, an anti-caste organisation founded by poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal. Athawale’s impetus for verse probably comes from that time too, though his rhymes are not a patch on Dalit poetry known for its illuminating but searing qualities.

This lack of gravitas has become Athawale’s calling card in recent years. It has come to define him as a Dalit politician, much to the embarrassment of his colleagues in the Dalit political spectrum in Maharashtra. “Of late, he has become non-serious,” said Arjun Dangle, writer and former colleague of Athawale in the Republican Party of India (Athawale). “He is the butt of jokes and plays along with whoever is the piper. We are ashamed of it all.”

Dangle pointed out how Athawale, the fiery Dalit Panther leader who had called war on the Establishment in the 1970s, first trucked with the Congress, then with Nationalist Congress Party, later with the Shiv Sena and has now landed with the BJP. On each occasion, Athawale explained his decision as a way to grab a piece of the power pie for the Dalits and bring their issues into the political mainstream. But things did not quite work out that way.

“The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party didn’t give me or my followers anything much,” Athawale had said, while leaving that alliance in 2011. This is factually incorrect. Successive alliance governments in Maharashtra gave Athawale cabinet portfolios – he was the minister for Employment Guarantee Scheme and Prohibition Propaganda, Social Welfare and Transport. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance made room for the Republican Party of India (Athawale) whose leaders contested local, state and general elections on alliance tickets.

But it is also correct that the Congress parties essentially treated Athawale as a Dalit mascot and a route to Dalit votes. Being seated on the right side of the political power with stalwarts such as Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Congress leader and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh gave Athawale a sense of self-importance. They saw no pressure from him for concrete programmes with far-reaching impacts for Dalits and gave little. And they adopted this approach with all factions of the Republican Party of India and other Dalit groups which aligned with them.

Different trajectories

The Republican Party of India, established by Ambedkar, a Dalit icon and the author of India’s Constitution, had split into many factions by the 1960s. The party leaders themselves lost track of the factions, which political observers in the 1990s said numbered between 40 and 50. Of these, four factions headed respectively by Athawale, Prakash Ambedkar (grandson of BR Ambedkar), Jogendra Kawade and RS Gavai were the politically and numerically influential ones.

Prakash Ambedkar preferred to forge his own path and has been opposed to Athawale for decades. “The massive morcha (protest march) in Mumbai against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan showed our strength,” he said. “We brought Bhim-shakti (Bhimrao Ambedkar’s strength and ideology) together with Shiv-shakti (Shiv Sena), the Left and other like-minded groups.”

When Prakash Ambedkar was busy networking for this show of strength against the BJP governments in the state and at the Centre, Athawale was basking in the glory of his new ministership in the Modi cabinet. Athawale’s faux pas during the swearing in ceremony in early July – when he forgot to say his name while taking oath as Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment – came in for much derision during the morcha.

In comparison, Prakash Ambedkar is the more studious and serious politician. He also carries the significant second name. Between him and Athawale, the two most prominent Dalit leaders in Maharashtra, Athawale was more visible and vocal. He attracted young supporters, those on the margins of society struggling to live a decent and dignified life, who saw in him a messiah of sorts.

His oratory and verses helped, his promise of a better tomorrow brought them to the election rallies, and his sharing the stage with political heavy-weights brought a sense of achievement to them. But his candidates hardly ever won elections – local, state or general. Often, he was the only representative of his party in an elected House.

Dalits comprise about 11% of Maharashtra’s population but are an electorally significant group across the state. For example, in nearly half of Vidarbha’s assembly constituencies, Dalits number between 22% and 24%. The Dalit vote can be the game-changer in about a dozen constituencies in the Marathwada region of the state and a handful of constituencies in western Maharashtra, Mumbai and Pune. Athawale hails from Sangli district in western Maharashtra.

Rising up the ranks

In the 2009 Maharashtra Assembly election, his party managed a vote share of 0.85%.

By the time the 2014 general election was round the corner, Athawale had switched to the Sena-BJP alliance. The Republican Party of India (Athawale) got 0.6% of the vote share. Six months later, in the Assembly election, the saffron allies had split and Athawale chose the BJP as it was the party in ascendance.

But his party managed a vote share of barely 0.2% prompting some to question the alliance with the BJP. Athawale’s colleagues, in off-the-record conversations, blamed the BJP for not doing enough to transfer its votes to the Republican Party of India (Athawale). With Athawale on its side, BJP doubled its MLAs in the reserved seats from seven in 2009 to 14, while all Republican Party of India (Athawale) candidates were defeated, a majority of them losing their deposits.

Athawale sulked and lay low. He found himself in an awkward position as the anti-Dalit sentiment and attacks against Dalits rose beginning with the ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in the Central University, Hyderabad, in January, to protest the alleged caste-based discrimination in the university.

Athawale’s response to attacks on Dalits was to arm them with guns and weapons licences for self-protection, an impractical and dangerous idea. But his mojo was back when Modi laid the foundation stone for the expensive Rs 12 crore memorial to Ambedkar in Mumbai. He was chosen to be in the Union cabinet when the Modi government wanted to reach out to Dalits.

His legion of followers was evidently happy at this elevation. Posters and banners went up across Mumbai congratulating him for “bringing in the bold blue of Ambedkar into the Modi cabinet”. The usual felicitation programmes followed. But his core constituency now comprises a piquant mix: Dalit youth, a section of neo-Buddhists, small-time builders, local strongmen and so on. The underworld don Chhota Rajan’s brother Deepak Nikalje was a prominent leader of the Republican Party of India (Athawale) and contested an election on the party symbol.

“My people want to move forward, today our hope is with Narendra Modi,” Athawale said in 2014. But Dangle wonders what exactly his proximity to power has brought his supporters all these years, other than getting their minor work done and minor contracts sorted out.

“Athawale is popular but not the political force he could have been,” said Dangle. Gangadhar Pantavane, well-known Dalit thinker and one of Athawale’s political mentors, expressed his displeasure in 2014 and remarked that “Athawale got carried away by the promises made by the forces which were not acceptable to Ambedkari forces”. He meant the BJP.

This was evident in the large numbers of Dalits and Ambedkarites who responded to Prakash Ambedkar’s call for the Mumbai morcha on July 19 to protest against the demolition of the historic Ambedkar Bhavan, a 72-year-old structure from where the Dalit leader had worked and published anti-caste material. The demolition was carried out by the People's Improvement Trust, set up by Ambedkar, to make way for a 17-storey grand building on the spot, that would also be called Ambedkar Bhavan.

Emerging alternative?

In the current Dalit-unfriendly atmosphere, Prakash Ambedkar has emerged as the voice of the Dalits. He got Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother to convert to Buddhism. He is looking to become the pivot around which Dalit politics will now revolve – the space that Athawale occupied and desires even today.

Athawale, an under-graduate, has lived in the quiet upscale environs of Bandra, Mumbai, for a few years now. After a bitter contest, he managed to gain control in 2011-12 of the People’s Education Society-run Siddharth College established by Ambedkar. He has a full-fledged college in his name in Aurangabad. His bio on the Parliament website describes him as “an artist, publisher, social worker and religious missionary” to which he can now add “Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India”. It is a dream fulfilled for him.

But the road to that fulfilment has left Athawale with a sense of political drift, dwindling support base, an absence of higher political purpose that say a Mayawati represents. He castigates the Bahujan Samaj Party president for not converting to Buddhism – which Ambedkar had advocated to Dalits as a means to rid themselves of the caste system – and dismisses her ascent as a natural corollary of the percentage of Dalit and Other Backward Classes population in her home state of Uttar Pradesh – twice that of Maharashtra.

But in his serious moments, he must wonder where he lost the plot to political power and turned into a puppet of the big political players – Congress yesterday, BJP today.

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