It is not easy to impress dalit voters across 10 Lok Sabha constituencies in Maharashtra’s Vidharbha belt. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, son Rahul Gandhi and NCP chief Sharad Pawar found that out while addressing rallies.
So the Congress-NCP combine is banking on dalit leader Jogendra Kawade’s earthy appeal to blunt the impact BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is believed to have made in Vidharbha, where dalits have generally been anti-saffron. Kawade is a leader of the People’s Republican Party.
Modi — BJP and its ally Shiv Sena, rather — too is relying on another fiery dalit leader, Ramdas Athawale, and his ability to connect with the grassroots with aggressive colloquialism.
But where Kawade scores over Athawale, known as a rabble-rouser, is in intellectual prowess. He hits where it hurts most without coming across as a street-fighter like Athawale. And he virtually has people eating out of his hands as he, on behalf of Congress-NCP, has a go at Modi and BJP.
Kawade is as important for Congress-NCP as Athawale is for BJP-Shiv Sena; of the 10 seats in Vidarbha, dalits dictate terms in five — Nagpur, Akola, Buldana, Amravati and Ramtek.
The past weeks have seen Kawade systemically demolishing Athawale’s ‘self-centred politics’ and underscoring the traditional dalit hatred for ‘Hindutvawad’. Using Hindi, Urdu and Marathi poetry as weapon, he labels Athawale a traitor to the dalit cause. Poetry is not Athawale’s forte.
The most devastating effect that Kawade perhaps has had this election is on the fortunes of another dalit leader Prakash Yashwant Ambedkar, the grandson of the iconic BR Ambedkar.
Prior to his rally at Akola last Sunday, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan told HT: “We had offered a ticket from Akola to Prakash Ambedkar because he had been the runner-up here in 2009 and his party had captured the local bodies here. But we had to find another candidate as Ambedkar had other concerns.’’
But Kawade was not so circumspect in attacking Prakash Ambedkar at the rally. “He wanted to be paid to contest and while we were talking of Lok Sabha, he was demanding 40 seats from the Congress for the assembly and wanted to be paid for those too,’’ he said.
The ‘expose’ is believed to have made Prakash Ambedkar, representing Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh party for the Akola seat, slip in the esteem of the voters. Because of Kawade, he is expected to finish third behind BJP’s Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre and Hidayatulla Barkatulla Patel of Congress.
But with Kawade going full throttle, the Congress feels it has a presence in Akola after 25 years. It had last won the seat in 1984.
Along with Prakash Ambedkar, Kawade was one of the four dalit leaders who won a parliamentary seat in 1998 from Vidarbha in alliance with the Congress.
He is not contesting any seat this time but his grey-haired Aristotle-like looks are helping him get away with his almost libelous speeches.
He is doing so because he has set a price for canvassing for Congress-NCP. He told Pawar in public: “I hope you will bless me by placing your hand on my head, as you did with Athawale. He betrayed you; it would not have happened if you had chosen me instead.”Also in the race to capitalise on dalit votes in Akola are Bhanudas Chaukoba Kamble of Bahujan Samaj Party, Ajay Panjabrao Hingankar of Aam Aadmi Party and Sandip Kisanrao Wankhede, an independent.