Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dalit/RPI Politics in Maharashtra

This article is also published in Economic and Political Weekly, 21 April 2012

Introduction The results of the ten Municipal elections in Maharashtra were usually analyzed as the ‘gains and losses’ of constituencies between the two dominant political alliances, Shiv Sena (SS) and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) on one side and Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on the other. However, the recent elections became interesting as one of the factions of the old Dalit political party, Republican Party of India (RPI) has decided to become ally of saffron combine under the slogan of ‘Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti’. It is argued by Ramdas Athawale that the persistent failure of the Congress Party in accommodating the voice of the Dalits in its mainstream agenda has led him to choose the earlier ‘bĂȘte noir’ of Dalit politics, the SS-BJP as a new partner. Reputed Dalit thinker, Namdeo Dhasal has also argued that this alliance will free the Dalits from compulsive association with the Congress Party to build a new ethics of politics in Maharashtra. A critical appraisal therefore, needs to be undertaken to analyse the electoral performance of the current alliances made by the various factions of RPI and its impact over the future of Dalit politics in Maharashtra.

It is argued here that the results of the recently held municipal and other local elections show that the celebrated political ideals of the Dalit Movement are under crises and in the absence of dominant discursive theme of ‘Dalit emancipation’ it has lost significance to be identified as the political ideology of the oppressed. The RPI factions are reduced to insignificant locations with token presence and its earlier capacity to bargain for exclusive projects for the welfare of Dalits has also abridged considerably. The repose to ‘alliance-politics’ overtly represented the myopic vision of the Dalit leadership who is strategizing mainly to remain visible in the political scenario of Maharashtra without giving any considerations to the principle ideals of the Dalit movement.

Performance of RPI in the 2012 local elections: Municipal elections in the 12 major cities in Maharashtra took place on 16th February 2012. For the two conventional rival alliances in Maharashtra (Congress-NCP and SS-BJP) the results were a mixed bag. Cities like, Pune, Pimpri, Solapur and Amravati showed the dominance of the Congress-NCP combine whereas in Mumbai, Thane, Nagpur, Ulhasnagar and Akola, Shiv Sena-BJP emerged as a winner. Comparatively, the SS-BJP combine has reasons to celebrate as they successfully maintained their dominance over the much coveted Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Interestingly, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) performed extremely well in most of the municipalities and also became a decisive force in the Nashik region (here it won largest 40 seats out of 122). Small parties like Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have significantly improved its tally in local bodies as all together it has won 25 seats in this elections (Nagpur 12, Amravati 6, Solapur 3, and two each in Thane and Ulhasnagar) and Samajwadi Party also retained its impressive space in Mumbai with 8 seats (it came second on other 20 seats). In this context, RPI’s performance in most of the regions remained extremely disappointing.

The two major factions of RPI settled with two rival groups in the municipal elections. RPI-A has contested all the municipal elections in alliance with the SS-BJP combine. The other two important groups of the RPI (headed by Prakash Ambedkar (Bahujan Mahasangh (BM)), Sulekha Kumbhare and Jogendra Kawade) have contested in alliance with the NCP-Congress. The SS-BJP alliance offered RPI-A a significant number of seats in most of the regions, however the results for the RPI-A was dissatisfactory on all accounts. In no Municipal corporation elections it has won more than two wards and only in Nashik its performance is mentionable, where it has won a respectable 6 seats. The results for the other factions of the RPI were also poor in most of the regions. It is only in the Akola municipal elections that RPI being an ally of the ‘secular alliance’ has shown some might. RPI-BM has won 7 seats which further resulted into winning the mayoral post in Akola. Apart from Nashik and Akola, both the RPI factions failed to show any impressive impact in other regions.

What has happened to the Dalit voters? In the early first decade after Independence, Maharashtra remained a frontal site of Dalit activism under the leadership of B. R. Ambedkar. He visualized RPI as a liberal-mass based political organization but his sudden demise in 1956 left the party unprepared for the future obstacles. Since the year of its inception (1956), it struggled hard to make its impact over the electorates but was mostly dubbed as a ‘Neo-Buddhist party’. The Congress was first to exploit such situation. Influential leaders of the RPI were co-opted and alternative Dalit leadership was developed by the Congress. In the later stages it formed token alliance with the RPI to influence and mobilize the Dalit voters. With the rise of parochial right wing politics in Maharashtra (Shiv Sena was established in 1966), RPI formed secular alliance with the Congress to keep the SS-BJP combine out of power. However, such alliances mostly treated the RPI as a mere object to impress the Dalit voters rather than a representative body of the Dalit constituency. Till the recent past, owing to its ideological imperative of anti-caste struggle, the Dalit voters remained committed to the secular politics and rallied behind the Congress.

The latest RPI-A alliance radically challenged the popular assumptions that the Dalits had about their secular commitments. In most of the wards, Dalit formed a significant vote bank, influential in tilting the results. Even a small diversion of votes can have dramatic influence in the local elections. Ramdas Athawale has a considerable following among the Dalits in Mumbai, Thane and Ulhasnagar regions. 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 of these areas). However, the reverse to this condition has not been visible as most of the RPI-A candidates lost elections with huge margins. It is argued that the Dalits have promisingly opted for the SS-BJP alliance but the traditional voters of the combine have not shown faith in electing the RPI-As candidates. The results also show that in these elections the Dalits have selected non-secular outfits and considerably lend its support. This is visible in the seats won by MNS in Thane and Mumbai regions. MNS performed impressively well in the reserved constituencies and the wards dominated by the Dalit population (all 7 wards in Dadar area and substantial number of wards in Mahim, both representing strong Dalit population, are won by MNS). In most of the wards, in which MNS stood second (more than 80 seats) it is argued that MNS generated considerable support from the Dalits and Muslims. The presence of MNS is equally visible in the context of Nashik where Dalits represent a strong presence. On other fronts the Dalits have voted for better available alternatives to the RPI. In the Vidarbha region (Nagpur and Amravati) the BSP has entered in the politics of Maharashtra with an impressive tally. Nagpur which is considered as the citadel of Dalit movement showed no mercy to the politics of RPI and it draw blank in this region. However, by winning 12 seats in the Nagpur municipal election BSP has demonstrated that a significant neo-Buddhist voter has started adopting it as an alternative to the RPI. BSP also gained an impressive above five per cent vote share in these elections. Due to the presence of vibrant Dalit movements, this is a fertile field available for BSP where it can comfortably sow its seeds.

For all the factions of RPI, despite the unsatisfactory municipal election results, these groups have championed the claim 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 two per cent in any of the municipal corporations. The RPI has consistently reduced to a periphery, has remained dependent over the profits of alliance politics and utilized by ‘big players’ to influence a section of the Dalit voters.

Contemplating the Outcome The Dalit political movement in Maharashtra under the leadership of RPI factions is taking short term course for the disease which demands a sustained pathological revamping. Athawale’s political camaraderie with the saffron combine or the ‘secular alliance’ with Congress-NCP, both 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 marginalized communities. Further, such alliances will also disallow the social movement to consciously engage with other marginalized sections, mainly Muslims, Tribals and Most Backward Classes, to form a unified front against the political establishment dominated by the social elites. Such alliance offers a parasitic value to the RPI factions to remain passive players in the power circles of Maharashtra. However; such presence will have no impact in resolving the growing political problems of the Dalits and other deprived sections in the state.

The current factions of RPI are indifferent to the ideas of democratic struggles. It has not adequately utilized 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, specifically related to a certain community (mainly Mahars). The RPI has failed to provide leadership, ideological orientation and political principles to all those groups who are struggling to achieve a dignified representation in the democratic relationships. In large, the RPI has fallen considerably low to be depicted as the representative voice of Dalits in Maharashtra.

In the absence of impressive political alternative to represent their interests (one can propose BSP as one in the near future) the Dalits are looking for possibilities with the parochial parties like 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. It has been argued by the votaries of ‘Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti’ that as a sustained alliance for the future, it can be seen as a creative strategy to bring two contesting communities (Dalits and non-Maratha upper castes) into an alliance to challenge the political control of the Maratha elites represented by the Congress-NCP. Dalit leadership can get a respectable space in the power structure of the state and can rebuild their image as the important player in the politics of Maharashtra. The possible merits of this political alliance can significantly influence the political culture of Maharashtra and can open new avenues for other Dalit groups to rethink about associating with non-secular political outfits. However, such game plan for limited political gains can categorically disturb the ethical merit which Dalits in Maharashtra have celebrated till date.

Conclusion: The results of local elections in Maharashtra demonstrated that the Dalit voters are in desperate search of possible alternative which can represent their interest in the democratic sites. The growing distance of the Dalits from RPI factions and the ‘secular parties’, has led the sections of Dalit voters to choose a lumpen-parochial options, like the SS and the MNS. Such complexity is further damaging for the robust and radical Dalit socio-cultural movement which till the very recent past has provided meaning to the Dalit consciousness.
-Harish S Wankhede

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