SIX MONTHS after the statewide Maratha agitation demanding reservation tested the BJP-led government of Devendra Fadnavis, protests sparked by the violence in Bhima Koregaon, and nearby areas of Pune district, on Monday, which spread to Mumbai and several other areas of Maharashtra on Tuesday, has opened yet another fault line.
The Bhima Koregaon incident, which has led to a renewed assertion by Dalits in Maharashtra, could have a deeper political impact in the run-up to 2019 Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections.
From an electoral perspective, Dalits, who account for 10.6 per cent of Maharashtra’s electorate, can play a decisive role in nearly 60 of 288 Assembly seats. Of 48 Lok Sabha seats from the state, Dalits are seen as crucial in at least 10 to 12.
A day after the violence in Pune, the BJP on Tuesday tried to give the incident a Maratha versus Dalit political twist, while the Congress and NCP labelled it as a right-wing extreme Hindutva versus Dalit politics. This was reflected in NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s statement: “I am told that some outsider, right-wing elements are instrumental in provoking violence. Dalits have been visiting Bhima Koregaon for years, (but) there was never any trouble.”
Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil demanded a ban on Sanatan Sanstha and Sambhaji Brigade and accused the state government of not acting against perpetrators of Monday’s violence.
Sources in both Congress and the NCP told The Indian Express that it is their “concerted effort” to use these developments to bring Marathas and Dalits together in Maharashtra. And sparking the violence could be the BJP’s ploy to break that, they alleged.
What the parties have in mind is a potential political masterstroke: the Marathas (30 per cent of the electorate) and the Dalits (10.6 per cent) together constitute a vote-share of 40.6 per cent.
Traditionally, Dalits have been with the Congress and the NCP but Ramdas Athawale, now Union minister for Social Justice, aligned his party, RPI(A), with BJP for the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. In 2009, RPI(A) had gone with Shiv Sena following its disenchantment with the Congress-NCP alliance.
While Dalits are a splintered force in Maharashtra, with nine different parties claiming to represent them, RPI(A) wields maximum support among these communities.
On Tuesday, Athawale said, “Nobody should take the support of Dalits for granted. Dalits will support parties that promise development and welfare of the community. At present, we support the Narendra Modi government. But if any organisation is trying to foment trouble, Dalits will not be silent.”
Prakash Ambedkar, chief of Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of B R Ambedkar, dismissed the possibility of Marathas and Dalits/OBCs uniting in the current political scenario. “The highhandedness of Marathas over the last one year has left deep scars among Dalits. Their demand to dilute the (prevention of) atrocities Act has not gone done well with the community,” he said.
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut suspects something deeper: “Some major force is working to create unrest and break Maharashtra for vested interest…. Everything was going well in Maharashtra, then why did such violence occur suddenly?”
As for the ruling BJP, senior party leader and Maharashtra minister Chandrakant Patil said, “Creating social tension through caste conflict does not augur well for the welfare of the state.”Ambedkar said Dalits “will not return to Congress or NCP”, but neither will they support the RSS or BJP, he added.