The most-enduring image that I have of Ramdas Athawale is of him sprinting from Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar to escape the ire of the Dalit youths who were furious at the lip sympathy of Dalit leaders following the desecration of a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar and a subsequent police firing that had killed several of them in 1997.
Athawale first tried to jump over the barbed wire fence. He then tried to crawl under it. Then with the youth closing in on him, he lifted one of the middle wires and wiggled through -- the barbs must have hurt but they were much preferable to what the young boys might have done to him if he hadn’t escaped.
Two decades later, I noted Dalits elsewhere had no visible faith in him either. He got thrown out of Hyderabad Central University in January this year as he turned up to offer condolences after a Dalit student, Rohith Vermula, committed suicide.
Later, when Rohith’s mother converted to Buddhism, and Athawale attempted to felicitate her, she spurned him for Dr Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, as the better option among the Dalit leadership.
Now, without a single member of parliament in his faction of the Republican Party of India (apart from himself) and no MLA in the state Assembly, he has managed to secure a berth in Narendra Modi’s cabinet – something he had been seeking from the UPA for long and was denied.
Athawale’s worth to the Congress once upon a time was his rabble-rousing skills – he could fire up the Dalit youth within minutes and gather them for street demonstrations in no time at all. That is why Sharad Pawar chose to accommodate him in his cabinet when he was the chief minister of Maharashtra in the early 1990s. Athawale had been a firebrand during the agitation to rename the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar and when Pawar managed to accomplish the task one of the dividends was a cabinet berth for Athawale.
Since then I have marvelled at how seamlessly Athawale has managed to make his many transitions – from a minister in the Congress government to an ally of the Nationalist Congress Party to contesting on an NCP ticket in 2004 and then on a Congress ticket in 2009 from the temple town of Shirdi. Here is where he slipped up.
The temple town, though then reserved for Dalits, had been dominated once by the Congress and the upper castes of all hues. During his 2009 campaign, Athawale mocked the “bhandaras” (saffron tilaks) of the Brahmins, though he sported a blue one of his own ---- blue being the Republican colour ---- which did not go down well with the masses. Not surprisingly, he lost that poll and the Congress had no more use for him. So, he made his way to the Shiv Sena, seeking a Rajya Sabha nomination for long and finally being accommodated by the BJP on their quota.
Athawale’s is the classic case of what Professor Ramesh Kamble of the University of Bombay once described to me as the “self-serving interests of the mainstream” – the Congress needed him (and other Dalit leaders) in the 1990s and so made them MPs, MLAs and ministers.
The Shiv Sena needed some traction with Dalits in the 2000s and so co-opted more than one on board though they did not have much to offer them beyond a party membership. Now, the BJP needs a Dalit presence and hence Athawale, the solitary elected representative of his party, ends up as a minister in the Modi government.
As Prof Kamble told me, “The Dalit leadership exists because they fulfil the interests of the ruling political castes. Any other orientation by the Dalit leadership leads them to either being ousted from the political canvas or made redundant. Of course they could be ‘included’ in the power structure without any actual power.’’
Which is what Athawale epitomizes – “ousted” by both the Congress and the NCP, who could not care less about him following the diminishing returns he brought to their parties but now “included” by the BJP, who tried desperately with the descendants of Jyotiba Phule and BR Ambedkar but did not succeed and now have settled for the next best.
Now, Athawale sports not just a saffron “bhandara” but also saffron shirts under suits that are brightly saffron too. Meanwhile, many of his dwindling Dalit supporters go blue in the face.