In the run-up to the October 21 Assembly election, the Dalit community is expecting to be wooed assiduously by all parties as it has a sizeable presence in 60 seats in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, apart from the 29 seats reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates.
The ruling BJP-Shiv Sena is relying on ally Republican Party of India (A), led by Ramdas Athawale, for their outreach to the community. The Congress-NCP is using in-house old guards to appeal to Dalit voters, who were traditionally Congress voters. The Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, which has announced it will contest on all 288 seats, will be the third front vying for a maximum share of the Dalit vote.
“The generation next Dalits have moved to pragmatic politics. Any party which addresses their socio-economic concerns will earn their goodwill. Welfare schemes like Stand Up India and Mudra are helping Dalits. Their hunger for development and growth has multiplied. They are assertive and will not like parties to take them for granted,” said Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI) chairman Milind Kamble.
“Dalits cannot be held hostage through the old formula of secular versus communal plank. They are watchful and closely monitor every development,” Kamble said.
In the last five years, the BJP has worked hard to shed its anti-Dalit image. The B R Ambedkar International Centre in London and the Ambedkar Memorial at Indu Mills in Dadar (Mumbai) were both outreach missions. The party’s decision to accommodate Athawale as Union Minister of State for Social Justice in 2014 and 2019 was also intended to convey a strong message to the community — the BJP shares power with Dalits.
In the state, although the RPI(A) does not have a single elected member in the Maharashtra Assembly, the BJP made Avinash Mahatekar the Minister of State for Social Justice in the Fadnavis government.
The withdrawal of special status to Kashmir (Article 370) campaign is also being used to woo Dalits in Maharashtra. The script is that Article 370 was preventing Dalits from getting their Constitutional benefits written in by Dr B R Ambedkar.
“Ideologically, Dalits have been inclined to vote for the Congress-NCP. Their discomfort with right wing RSS/BJP is no secret. If we have the right strategy, we can regain their votes,” said senior Congress Dalit leader Nitin Raut.
VBA president Prakash Ambedkar denounced both the BJP and Congress-NCP. “In the past Congress-NCP used the Dalits as fodder to serve their vested political interests. Now, we have BJP-Sena wooing Dalits through false promises. The Dalits are ready to fight back the capitalists and their cronies. The question remains why atrocities against Dalits continue irrespective of strong governments. There is always a lurking threat that the right wing has an agenda to change the Indian Constitution.”
While admitting Dalit hardships are far from over, Athawale believes, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis are sensitive and compassionate to Dalits. All welfare schemes are designed to ensure better livelihood for Dalits. Whether it is housing for Dalits under Prime Minister Awas Yojna or agriculture reforms for Dalit marginal farmers — it has benefited them.”