Squinting against the glare of the merciless mid-morning sun, Babasaheb Mane (35) raises a wireless microphone to his lips.
“A government that cannot provide jobs or food is useless,” he bellows in Hindi, standing in the middle of Wadarwadi slum in Pune, Maharashtra. “So you must vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party.”
The residents of Wadarwadi, about 160 kilometres south-east of state capital Mumbai, are mostly Dalits such as the wadars (a caste of stonecutters), nomadic tribes and Muslims.
Mane, an ayurvedic doctor, belongs to the Kaikadi community, a nomadic tribe whose traditional occupations include rearing donkeys and weaving baskets.
He grew up in an impoverished village in Satara district, 120 kilometres away, and climbed the social ladder by dint of his fine mind and grit, with help from government scholarships.
Today, he runs a clinic in the slum, is a prominent social activist in the area, and is a member and former state general secretary of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Ahead of the general election, he is campaigning for an unlikely candidate: A Brahmin construction magnate with no political experience.
DS Kulkarni, whose Pune-based company DSK Developers posts an annual revenue of more than Rs 14 crore and is listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, entered the fray barely a month ago as a candidate for the party headed by Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit chief minister.
A small-built, balding man who speaks only haltingly in English, the 60-year-old Kulkarni took the plunge after four months of talks with the Bahujan Samaj Party.
“It was the only party that asked me, with great respect, whether I wanted to be a candidate,” he says candidly of his choice of party, as he climbs out of his multi-utility vehicle to walk through the slum. “As a businessman, I was very frustrated with the government. This might give me a chance to clean things up.”
Kulkarni doesn't stand much of a chance in Pune, where the fight is essentially between sitting Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi, a powerful businessman, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Anil Shirole.
But his campaign highlights both the immense importance that many educated Dalits give to electoral politics and the ambitions of the BSP in Maharashtra, where the only other party that exclusively represents Dalits is the highly fractious Republican Party of India, which has over the years splintered into about a dozen factions.
The BSP is fielding candidates in all 48 constituencies of Maharashtra this election.
“If I need to get to the station and someone drops me off there, what’s wrong with that?” asks Mane, using a metaphor for the ultimate goal of attaining political power. “For us, it is not that important who the candidate is. We are a cadre-based party. We vote for the party’s symbol.”
Dalit leaders’ active engagement with the electoral process has a long history.
BR Ambedkar, the pioneering Dalit activist, lawyer and chief author of India’s Constitution, attacked the Congress for leading a superficial political struggle without an agenda for social change.
But he also emphasised the need for Dalits to attain political power to complement their social struggle.
“Political power,” Ambedkar said, “is the master key that can open any lock.”
Mane epitomises that twinning of social activism with party politics.
“We still have not been given our constitutional rights as delineated by Ambedkar in the constitution,” he says, seated in his clinic. And he knows he does not have the funds to stand for elections himself.
So here he is, urging Wadarwadi’s residents to vote for a man who lives in an opulent walled estate in Pune, guarded by security guards and several vicious-looking dogs.
Stepping gingerly over rivulets of gutter water flowing through Wadarwadi’s dense alleys, Kulkarni looks ill at ease in his new environs as he smiles wanly at women who come out to garland him.
Mane strides ahead of him and greets men who come out their houses with warm handshakes. In the lanes of Wadarwadi, Mane is clearly the one in command.