Mumbai: When Ramdas Athawale slipped up by not mentioning his name while being sworn in as a minister in the Narendra Modi government, it was a surprise of sorts. His politics has mostly hovered around his getting a ministry to run. Probably it could be at having made it to the government at last, after much waiting. He had never hid that ambition.
His dressing, however, par for course. What others call ‘colourful’ is so loud and so uncoordinated that people with ordinary dress sense could recoil at the visual violence of it. The blue loose trousers and tunic is the colour that Republican Party’s flag is made of. The turban he sported is unlike any other worn by anyone else.
About the first: Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday mentioned his Marathi couplet, "Deshmadhe chalali aahe Mahayutichi hava, hoteel Modi pantapradhan ani milel mala lal diva. (There is a wave of the grand alliance all over the country. Modi will become prime minister and I will get a red beacon)." Here, note the telling ending, about his getting a ministerial position.
His penchant for rhymes, whether it is at a public meeting to seek votes, or on the television show, has always regaled the audiences for they convey a lot than a whole speech he tends to deliver in a singsong manner. Instead of rhetoric, he employs his couplets which are a part of him as his outlandish dress sense does. There’s no denying that the man never accepts a defeat.
In one of his rhymes, Aakashakade pahatana jaminivarche kalat nahi, pakshache tukde jhale tari mhaje paul dalat nahi (When looking at the sky, one doesn’t know the ground reality, even if the party broke to pieces, I remain steadfast). Here, you must hand it over to the man. If you happen to ask him about the personal ambition that drives his politics, he would give an embarrassed smile.
You could count on him to pick a telling point from any situation and emphasise it. On Wednesday, he insisted that after the Late BR Ambedkar in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first ministry, there hasn’t been a single minister from the ‘Republican base’. That there have been other dalit leaders before him – for instance Babu Jagjivan Ram, his daughter Meira Kumari – does not count. They were Dalits, he is a Republican Dalit.
Athawale’s Republican Party of India is undoubtedly the largest neo-Buddhist Dalit political grouping even compared to the organisation led by Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar. Now with all RPI faction refusing to unite, he stands to gain the most. When Prakash was nominated to Rajya Sabha during VP Singh’s prime ministership, the announcement about neo-daits getting recognition for concessions was confirmed.
That rhyme about the likelihood of a red beacon given the Modi wave then is the ambition that drove him, from one party or alliance to another, refusing to unite, though other RPI factions too are disinclined to unite despite the platitudes to the contrary. Even in Maharashtra, RPI (Athawale) only adds a fraction of votes to strengthen an alliance but on its own, not win seats.
How then would his elevation to a ministership impact outcome in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections is unclear. In a state where a dominant Dalit leader like Mayawati, despite her spells as chief minister, could be at a disadvantage as it has been in the recent elections, Athawale’s presence on the dais at election rallies as a member of a caste-social group pantheon may produce little benefit.
However, almost all RPI factions, whose count can vary to the extent a name could be found to be put in parenthesis as a suffix, have ceased to be a political force on the strength of an ideology. Although they claim to be Ambedkarite, but they have mostly declined into lumpenism, especially in towns and cities. Even such agitations like the one to successfully secure a new memorial to him on shutdown textile mill land in Mumbai does not add the ideological sharpness to them.
Again, it would be injudicious to single out RPI, which has over the decades since its formation, has split into several outfits which saw their reunification four times. Such a thing now appears impossible in the short or the long term because of two essential factors, personal ambitions riding on claimed popular support, and lumpenisation of the cadre. All these leaders would find it difficult to fight and win over their own Frankensteins.