Amid the intense political activity of the last couple of weeks in Maharashtra, one person missing from action is Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale. A minister in the Narendra Modi government after playing an important role in the BJP-Shiv Sena’s massive success in Maharashtra in the previous elections, Athawale is nowhere to be seen in the hectic seat-sharing negotiations that have been happening.
Athawale, who heads his own faction of the Republican Party of India, called RPI(A), had joined the BJP-Sena alliance for the last Lok Sabha elections. And though his party drew a blank — he himself was elected to the Rajya Sabha and made a minister — he is said to have played a crucial role in getting the Dalit support to the alliance.
This time, the Dalit vote in Maharashtra is seen to be commanded by Prakash Ambedkar, whose Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) has formed an alliance with smaller parties, including Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, under the banner of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA).
Ambedkar, who has gained prominence since aggressively campaigning against the BJP government at the Centre and in the state after the Bhima Koregaon violence in 2018, has decided to field candidates on all 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state, having refused to join the larger Opposition alliance, led by the Congress and NCP.
The realisation that Ambedkar’s outfit could actually split the anti-BJP votes and hurt the Opposition chances has probably reduced the BJP’s need to woo Athawale as strongly as it had done in the last elections. Athawale was not in the loop when the BJP and Shiv Sena decided their seat-sharing arrangement in Maharashtra. As of now, not even one seat has been left for Athawale’s party.
Not surprisingly, Athawale, while demanding at least the Mumbai seat for himself, has been threatening to move out of the BJP fold. “It has been the experience that if I take a decision, it creates bigger impacts on the results. The Congress lost power after we broke the alliance with that party. If I leave my existing alliance with the BJP, then the BJP would also lose power,” Athawale said.
He has been telling the BJP that if it wants Dalit votes it must stop this impression going out that the RPI(A) was being ignored.
For the time being though, major political parties are watching Ambedkar more carefully for indications of the Dalit mood. Even Athawale’s colleagues realise this. “Athawale has a very good network in the state. His supporters are spread across Maharashtra. But things have changed in the last five years. He is part of the BJP-led government and its image has got a beating among the public after the incidents in Koregaon-Bhima and other parts of the country,” said one RPI(A) leader. He conceded that some party followers may have drifted to Ambedkar, who has been much more aggressive in highlighting incidents against Dalits.
“At present, party workers have taken a stand that they would not campaign for anyone in the Lok Sabha elections as the RPI(A) has not been given any seat in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. However, it would be difficult to ensure that the party workers would not change their stand and there is likelihood that they will support Ambedkar to ensure they have a Dalit leader in the election fray,” said another leader. He said the decision of Ambedkar to stay away from the Congress-NCP alliance is an attractive option for the Dalits as it gives them a separate identity. “It is a matter of self-respect,” the RPI(A) leader said.
A colleague of Ambedkar, however, said their Aghadi platform was not just limited to Dalits. “The BBM leader (Ambedkar) has never restricted himself to Dalits and his focus has always been to ensure inclusiveness for all minority groups. This strategy has worked for him in the past. He is confident that it would work this time as well, due to prevailing sentiments against the government. There is only one leader being looked at by Dalit voters at present, and it is Prakash Ambedkar,” he said.
But Ambedkar’s decision not to align with the Opposition has invited accusations that he might be playing the BJP’s game by proxy, a charge that Ambedkar denies vehemently. A top Congress leader said Ambedkar had deliberately kept his demands so high that it could never have been met by the Congress-NCP alliance. “How can the Congress-NCP give them 20 seats? They are asking for even more,” the Congress leader said.
“The Congress party has been seeking discussions with Ambedkar for a pre-poll alliance for long. However, there was no response to these proposals. It seems Ambedkar was never interested in the anti-BJP alliance. This is going to help the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance due to division of secular votes,” he said.