Call it strange bedfellows who stop being strangers or social engineering with a quirk, Dalit politics and the politics over the Dalit vote bank are taking a curious turn.
BSP chief Mayawati started it all. She sought to combine extremes of the social spectrum in her political pool. Hitherto mutually exclusive groupings — Brahmins and lower castes for example — came to share the same platform, and it paid political dividend.
In the Bihar elections, the Congress tried something similar during its Gaon ki Or Chalo padyatra. It was a disaster, though; the intention was too visible. The recent re-induction of OBC leader Uma Bharti in the BJP, predominantly an upper caste party, could be seen as an effort to bridge the extremes and broad-base the party’s social appeal. The most interesting development on this front comes from Maharashtra.
Experimenting with new alignments, the saffron combine in the state has invited a strong section of the Republican Party of India (RPI), headed by Ramdas Athavle, to its fold. The Dalits, looking beyond the 'secular' Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, have reciprocated with some enthusiasm.
Traditionally, the Maratha-Muslim-Dalit combine has been a potent winning mix for the Congress-NCP coalition. The Shiv Sena-BJP’s hardline Hindutva ideology had kept the fragmented Dalit vote bank away (they account for more than 10% of votes in the state and 23% in the politically sensitive Vidarbha region). The equations seem to be changing now. The effort now is on leveraging the advantage of the distinct support base of all three parties.
A note of caution here. The RPI is a hopelessly divided house at present, with at least a dozen factions in circulation. Athavle leads one of them. His entry into the saffron fold does not mean the entire Dalit vote bank has shifted to the BJP-Shiv Sena. But it’s an interesting shift with repercussions for Dalit politics in the state and elsewhere. It is a pointer to the fact that ideological stringency is giving way to pragmatic politics in several parts of the country.
What makes the alliance curious is the long history of bitterness between the Shiv Sena, the leader of the saffron pack, and the Dalits. The latter suspected the Shiv Sena's role in the death of Bhagwat Jadhav, the leader of the Black Panthers movement in the 1970s. Its open opposition to Ambedkar's book Riddles of Hinduism and reservation in employment and education is well documented. The already troubled relations nosedived after the Rambai Nagar incident in the 1990s, where 10 Dalits were killed.
What triggered the change of heart? Well, it is electoral compulsions. New political forces have come up in the state to put pressure on the existing alliance equations. The BSP’s entry in the state has left the Dalit leadership in a quandry. While the neo-Buddhists continue to support the various factions of the RPI, the Dalit Hindus — this group backed the Congress earlier — are veering towards the BSP. Mayawati’s party has not made a big splash yet, but it provides a rallying point for many disenchanted Dalit outfits and their leaders.
For the Shiv Sena, it’s the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) factor. The Raj Thackeray-led outfit has divided the party’s regular support base and put the electoral prospects of the saffron alliance in jeopardy. The Shiv Sena had to look for new groupings for support to offset the MNS impact. Athavle was an easy catch since he nurses a grouse against Congress-NCP after being left in the cold after the last parliamentary elections.
Interestingly, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar has also started speaking about "issue-based alliance" with the Shiv Sena.
While driven by opportunism, the development is promising in the context of politics in general. It creates scope for mutual adjustment, breaks down hardened stands growing out of mothballed world views and promises to ease tension between caste and communities. It is yet to develop into a pan-Indian phenomenon, but trust politics to make the extremes meet.
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2011 13:15:18 IST