RAMDAS ATHAWALE’S induction in the Union ministry has less to do with the need for an additional Minister of State (MoS) in a ministry which already has two Ministers of State, but is more about the BJP’s machinations to garner Dalit votes, both in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections and the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls.
The social justice and empowerment ministry headed by Union Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, has MoS Vijay Sampla and MoS Krishnan Pal Gurjar. Sampla, who was recently made BJP chief in election-bound Punjab, handles drug abuse, beggary, transgender and SC-OBC issues, while Gurjar looks after disability affairs.
Athawale is most likely to be given SC affairs, a department which currently does little other than disbursing scholarships. By his own admission, Athawale’s induction is a political move.
“When we tied up with the BJP prior to the 2014 elections, we were promised a ministerial berth. It has been fulfilled now, with the UP and Mumbai municipal elections around the corner. We will take on Mayawati in the UP polls. This is a mutually beneficial deal for both the BJP and RPI,” Athawale told The Indian Express.
His induction is also being seen as a symbolic attempt to placate the anger over the Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya episodes.
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The Republican Party of India (Athawale faction) is among the many splintered factions of the RPI, and the one with the maximum mass base in Maharashtra.
The cash-rich BMC is set to go to polls next year. With the RPI (Athawale) holding some sway over Dalit pockets in at least a third of the 227 civic wards, the BJP sees it as a way to counter Shiv Sena, its ally at the Centre which will be fighting the civic elections separately.
“Currently, the RPI(A) has only a single corporator in the BMC, but its strength lies in being able to garner just enough votes from its Dalit base, which, for many parties, will prove to be a make-or-break margin,” said a close associate of Athawale.
With his roots in Maharashtra’s Dalit Panther movement, Athawale’s initiation into politics was through then Congress leader Sharad Pawar. But his two decades as an ally of the Congress-NCP and three terms as a Member of Parliament did not get him a central ministerial berth. A disgruntled Athawale then joined hands with the BJP in 2011.
On Wednesday, the street outside Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi was lined with huge posters congratulating Athawale, while a lone poster hung at the gate of Shastri Bhawan, where he took charge as MoS. “The Congress has been unjust to me all these years. (Narendra) Modiji has kept his word. Seventy years after Ambedkar was part of the Nehru government, an RPI leader has got a ministerial berth. Dalits all over the country feel invigorated by this,” said Athawale.