High ambition in times of extreme polarisation
Prakash Ambedkar has always been an ambitious man – without the realisation of much of his ambition. The only time he managed to get elected was in 1998 to the Lok Sabha. But that victory was not his, it was Sharad Pawar’s. The Congress had then allied with various factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) and Ambedkar was one of the four RPI candidates, including Ramdas Athawale, Jogendra Kawade and RS Gavai who were elected to parliament from open general seats.
However, that victory came after determined efforts by Pawar at social engineering. Right from his days as chief minister in 1978, Pawar was hell bent upon the integration of Dalits with mainstream society. So he appointed a Dalit as the vice-chancellor to the Marathwada University in Aurangabad and sought to rename it after Dr BR Ambedkar, not realising the continuing discriminatory tendencies of the upper castes towards Dalits was a very deep-rooted factor – until Marathwada exploded in very bloody riots during the renaming process.
Twenty years after that first experiment at social engineering, Pawar told me rather wryly, “It is easy to get Dalits to vote for upper castes in an open constituency, but nearly impossible to get the upper castes accept Dalits in even reserved seats.”
But that was not the case with Muslims. Pawar’s second major experiment at social engineering was during the rehabilitation efforts after the Latur earthquake. The government was building free housing for the survivors and Pawar decided to base this on economic status. The houses were allotted through lotteries – you could thus not choose your neighbours and could not ghettoise the new settlements. The government had taken care to build a temple at one end of the village and a mosque at the other to put as much distance between the sight and sounds of the places of worship and yet villagers were up in arms about their new homes of different sizes, but all with attached toilets and neatly fenced-up front yards. When I visited some of the villages, I discovered it was not the size of the homes or the religious places of worship that bothered the upper caste villagers. One Maratha lady, sitting unhappily at her front doorstep, had a Muslim neighbour to her left and I thought I had spotted the problem. But it turned out she could live with the Muslim neighbour. It was the neighbour to her right who was the real cause of unrest – that neighbour was a Dalit. “Hum Musalmaan ke baaju mein rehne ko tayyar hain. Pur hum Maang, Matang ya Mahar ke baaju mein nahin rahenge!” she said definitively.
It was an education to me as well about the continuing deep-rooted biases in Hindu society which could make compromises with Muslims but not with the lower castes in their own religion. So in 1998, Pawar spent most of his time in the four constituencies from where Ambedkar and his fellow Dalits were contesting, to persuade the upper castes to vote for them. It was an uphill task but he succeeded and all four won their seats. But that experiment has never been repeated. Athawale shifted to successive reserved constituencies, while Kawade and Gavai gave up electoral politics. But Ambedkar contested again and again from Akola, his earlier seat, with a substantial Dalit and Muslim population, but failed every time.
At this summer’s Lok Sabha elections, in alliance with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen under the banner of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, Dalit and Muslim voters combined to cause tremendous damage to the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance, pulling in a lakh or more votes in several constituencies. The Congress had wanted an alliance with the VBA but, as usual, Ambedkar had been very impractical, demanding 22 of the 48 seats from the Congress. In the past too, he has demanded more than half the Assembly seats from potential allies and now he has gone one step further with the AIMIM, conceding only eight of the 288 seats for the party which, under the circumstances, has called off its alliance with the VBA.
Based on the last Assembly results, I think Ambedkar is likely to discover that Muslim candidates even on Congress tickets, do far better than Dalit candidates, more so because in the last few years the biases of Hindu society have only been reinforced rather than obliterated the way Pawar was hoping.
Like the Maratha lady in her front yard all those years ago, at a pinch the discriminatory voters may not mind a Muslim candidate. But in these highly polarised times, Dalits on a non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket? Highly unlikely!