The Congress and BJP appears to be competing with each other to assimilate Dalits in their organisations as fragmented Dalit political outfits have shown a sharp decline in the last few years in Maharashtra. Dalit academics and writers attribute the decline of Dalit organisations to leadership failure.
The BJP’s aggressive push to B R Ambedkar projects, from a grand memorial at Indu Mills in Shivaji Park to purchase of Ambedkar’s London House in London, too marks the shift of right-wing politics. “B R Ambedkar cannot be confined in the narrow prism of electoral politics. He was one of the greatest visionaries whose theories on economics to agriculture are still a guiding principle for the Centre and the state,” Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said.
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While the BJP tries to woo Dalits, the Congress is struggling to retain its hold among the once-loyal votebank. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, commemorated on April 14, brought to the centrestage the complete disintegration of once-strong Dalit movements under various banners – the Republican Party of India, Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, Khobragade group, RPI-Gavai et al.
BBM president Prakash Ambedkar said, “Today, we don’t have a strong Dalit leadership to hold the youths under one banner, though the Ambedkar movement cannot be dismissed as socio-economic issues are still relevant and alive. There are complex new problems arising every day but leadership crisis is an issue to hold Dalits together under a common banner.”
Whether it is commemorating Ambedkar’s birth anniversary every April 14 or death anniversary on December 6, the Dalit political and social organisations have taken a backstage or even lost their relevance.
The RPI (A) led by Ramdas Athavale, which was an independent force to reckon with, has assimilated with the mainstream ruling BJP government at the Centre and state. Athavale has been made a Rajya Sabha MP from BJP quota.
Dalit International Chamber of Industries and Commerce (DICCI) chairman Milind Kamble said, “You cannot expect a replay of 1960s, 1970s in year 2016. Times have changed, bringing to the fore new-age politics, leadership and problems. New generation Dalits are not hankering for political empowerment but economic empowerment.”
DICCI statistics reveal more than 100 success stories of Dalit entrepreneurship with annual turnover of more than Rs 100 crore. Kamble said, “Dalit politics was at its peak when youths were struggling to get recognition or their voices heard. Now, the youths are aspiring for economic self-reliance…”
Despite multiple organisations in the past, Dalits electorally had remained loyal to the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra till year 2004; 2009 marked a major shift with generation next looking for new alternatives in the Shiv Sena, MNS and BJP.
According to Athavale, “The decision to align with the Sena in 2009 or BJP in 2014 was an outcome of pragmatic politics based on common mimimum agenda of development plank.”
Notwithstanding the explanation, it emerges that leaders of independent parties are finding it hard to make a comeback on their own strength in current politics.
Die-hard Ambedkarite Tushar Jagtap said, “The political significance may have been reduced but Dalits cannot be taken for granted by either the BJP or the Congress. They will still play an important role in ushering socio-economic development as circumstances evolve.”
The sentiments are echoed by Prakash (Ambedkar) when he observes, “While some integration of Dalits in mainstream cannot be ruled out, Congress cannot expect the same degree of loyalty or consolidation of Ambedkarites under their banner.” To the contrary, he said, “The Dalits are drifting away from the Congress.”
Despite major reforms and programmes on B R Ambedkar, Prakash is unsure to what extent the Dalits will back up with the BJP ahead.
“There would be some churning and non-BJP, non-Congress forums (such as his BBM) will emerge as a rallying point for Dalits and OBCs.”