Lok Sabha elections 2019: Ramabai Nagar hears its own voice in Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi
“We have tried Congress. The BJP has done no good for us. Why not give a chance to Prakash Ambedkar?” asks Ashok Kharat, a conservancy worker and resident of Nalanda Nagar, a part of Ramabai Nagar, a huge slum cluster in the Mumbai North East constituency. Kharat says that the whole ‘vasti’ will vote for the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a party floated by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, to represent marginalised communities.
The area, spanning along a major portion of the Eastern Express Highway, has a majority of Dalit voters, who are not happy with the ruling BJP regime.
There are more than 60,000 voters in Ramabai Nagar and Kannamwar Nagar, two major Dalit pockets in the constituency.
Apart from agrarian crises and unemployment, the BJP government is also battling Dalit resentment owing to incidents such as the Rohit Vemula case, issues with the probe into the Bhima-Koregaon violence and confusion over reservation.
“There is a huge amount of anger and resentment among Dalits,” says Jaywant Hire, a senior journalist and social activist from the area. To add to it is the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra, which has caused mistrust among voters after the two parties were at loggerheads for the most part of 2014-2019.
On Wednesday morning, BJP- Sena candidate Manoj Kotak paid obeisance to the statue of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar right at the entrance of Ramabai Nagar. Kotak was accompanied by sitting MP Kirit Somaiya, whom the former has replaced as a candidate owing to Somaiya’s allegations against the Sena in the past five years.
“Even though Somaiya has been replaced, he seems to be leading the campaign here. This has really upset the local Sainiks and even the traditional Sena voters who don’t want the BJP back,” Hire adds. Ask him about Dalits favouring the VBA and Hire says, “The Dalit community now wants someone of their own to be in power,” he says.
Ramabai Nagar near Ghatkopar became a known name in political circles following an incident in 1997, when 10 people were killed after the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) opened fire on Dalit groups protesting desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar nearby. “The episode led to Dalits being wary against the BJP-Sena. They still remember the incident,” Hire said.
NCP candidate Sanjay Patil would have got benefit of the resentment among the Dalits, but Ambedkar’s VBA — a front of small parties including Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlees-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) — seems to have made a strong pitch here among the voters. It has fielded Niharika Khondalay from the Dhangar community as its candidate. She is the women’s wing president of the Dhangar Samaj Vikas Parishad in the state. The community has been demanding reservation under the ST category. The VBA has significant support from Dalit youth, who are considering the formation of VBA as a political movement.
“This is the Lok Sabha elections, where national issues are more important than local candidates,” says Harshu Salve, a third-year law student from Ramabai Nagar. “The VBA in its manifesto has given priority to education and said that it will make education free. This is the most important step for students like us.”
Locals in the area also feel people are still irked by the Congress-NCP regime.
“A shift in vote is a definite,” says Rahul Kamble, a local activist from the area. “The Muslims and Daits who used to vote for Congress and NCP will definitely vote for VBA. They are tired of the party who just pretend to be secular,” he says. Ask him about Congress-NCP dubbing VBA as Team B of BJP, to cut into votes, and Kamble says, “If Ambedkar wanted to be BJP’s Team B, he would have done it in his 40-year political career.”