The Bhima Koregaon incident leading to the bandh in Maharashtra on Wednesday has given a new lease of political life to Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) president Prakash Yashwant Ambedkar. At 63, he appears to have emerged as the rallying point for the faction-ridden Dalits across Maharashtra.
The grandson of B R Ambedkar, who has been on the back foot since 1996, may never have imagined that the latest Maratha-Dalit conflict would mark the beginning of his resurgence in state politics. Over the past two decades, he had confined his politics to Amravati and Akola districts in the cotton growing belt of Vidarbha.
But on the way, he has been networking with non-Congress and non-BJP forces across the country. Aligned to the left, socialists and democratic outfits, Prakash Ambedkar, in the past two decades, was not able to make much inroads in electoral politics, repeatedly failing to make it from the Parliament constituency of Akola in Vidarbha.
Prakash Ambedkar’s success in bringing Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra to a virtual standstill has been an outcome of meticulous planning to consolidate the Dalit/OBC forces against the Marathas. The Bhima Koregaon incident provided a trigger.
“The atrocities against Dalits in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat has cast a long shadow across the country and there is a sense of discomfort within the community,” said Prakash Ambedkar. He believes that the ruling BJP cannot instill confidence among Dalits by symbolic gestures, like developing five pilgrimage centres where B R Ambedkar lived and worked across India.
“They have to provide the necessary security and the inclusiveness to win over the Dalits to its fold.The right wing fanatic organisations are often perceived as anti-Dalits, specially instances of cow vigilantes that led to attacks on Dalits,” he said.
The success of the bandh aside, Prakash Ambedkar reckons the bigger challenge to keep the faction-ridden Dalits together in the face of attempts by mainstream parties, like the BJP, Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena, to break the groups. The Dalits are split in various groups some of them led by Anand Raj Ambedkar, Yogendra Kawada, Rajendra Gavai, P I (Khobragade) and RPI ( Kamble) factions across Marathwada, Vidarbha and parts of north and western Maharashtra.
In the 1990s, Prakash Ambedkar took the initiative to unite all nine Dalit factions under one umbrella. The United Dalit Democratic Front fielded four candidates in the Lok Sabha and won.
Apart from Prakash Ambedkar, Ramdas Athavale, Yogendra Kawade and R S Gavai represented the Dalits in the Lok Sabha. But within one year, a leadership dispute led to a division within the Dalit front, resulting in sidelining of Prakash Ambedkar.
The larger question now, from a political perspective, is whether Prakash Ambedkar’s new drive will lead to sidelining of RPI (A) leader Ramdas Athavale who is part of the NDA government.
Underplaying the leadership issue, Athavale said: “Dalits took to the street spontaneously to protest against the Bhima Koregaon incident. It was a display of their anger against the Marathas. There was no politics or a leadership issue.” According to him, RPI (A) workers led the bandh to support Prakash Ambedkar’s bandh call.
An Ambedkar activist, Tusshar Jagtap believes that the assertion of the Dalits could well be a wake up call for all mainstream political parties.
“The frequent attacks against Dalits and non-enforcement of policies for Dalits are leading to simmering discontent and consolidation of forces that are against the right-wing BJP. It is too early to speculate which
way they would lead in the absence of credible leadership.” he said.