Elections so far never meant anything for Maruti Gavade, a nomadic shepherd of the Dhangar community, for the good reason that he had never cast his vote in the past. It’s different this Assembly elections in Maharashtra. Gavade and his family are returning to their village in Solapur district to vote.
“Our leaders have told us this election is about our future and we must vote,” he said.
This has been a politically active year for his community, which held agitations for inclusion in the scheduled tribe list of the state.
Across the state, Dhangar community members had come out on the streets and embarked on fast unto death. They had marched from Pandharpur to Baramati and had also agitated in front of the house of the former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.
With over one crore population, the Dhangar community in Maharashtra is grouped under the Vimukhta Jati and Nomadic Tribes (VJNT) and enjoys 3.5 reservation, while the ST community has 7 per cent reservation.
The community had not seen any consolidation of votes prior to this election. During the agitation, leaders from all political parties had expressed solidarity with the community, with BJP leaders promising to include the community in the ST list once they come to power in the state.
An important community leader and president of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha, Mahadev Jankar, had taken part in the agitation. Jankar is in alliance with BJP and his party is fighting seats where the community has a strong presence.
Senior NCP leader Anna Dange said it appears the agitation will benefit the BJP. “The march from Pandharpur to Baramati was given a distinctive anti-NCP flavour and pro-BJP twist. It was almost made to appear that the Pawars were against Dhangar reservation,” he said. Dange said the matter was usurped by BJP leaders.
“I feel that 80-85 per cent of the community will go against the NCP,” he said.
Dange blamed the Congress chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and said he failed to find an acceptable solution to the problem. Dange who was a minister in the earlier Shiv Sena-BJP government, joined NCP in 2006. Dange did not campaign for this Assembly election as he feels all political parties have let down the community.
During height of the agitation, NCP leader Sharad Pawar had issued a letter seeking inclusion of the community in the scheduled tribes list. He had to clarify that such inclusion should not harm existing reservations for tribals. Tribal leaders claim inclusion of Dhangars would harm their interest. Senior tribal leaders from all parties had met the union tribal welfare minister Juel Oram to oppose the inclusion. Tribal leaders from NCP point out how Pawar’s letter had angered tribals, traditional voters of the party.
Social researcher Sanjay Sonawani said Pawar writing a letter to the prime minister did not make much sense given he does not hold any powers. “The matter of inclusion in ST list is the prerogative of the central government and the state government, other than recommending the same, has no major role to play. The agitation was given a political twist, defeating its purpose,” he said.
NCP leaders feel the Dhangar agitation will reflect more in their stronghold of Western Maharashtra where the community has sizeable pockets of population. “We feel deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s margin may go down because of this,” said a senior NCP leader.