Ramdas Athawale is a curious phenomenon in Maharashtra’s politics. He leads one of the factions of Republican Party of India (RPI), considered to be the converging point (the party, not the faction) for Dalits, at least in Maharashtra. The party itself came into being after Dr. Ambedkar passed away, so there is no ‘Ambedkar’ legacy.
RPI is known for more for its factions – not because they are active or strong, but because of their sheer number. As per the wiki page, there are some fifty factions in all. The ones that can be named and counted are around twenty.
Athawale started his activism in the late-seventies, influenced by the militant Dalit Panther movement, which was modeled after the Black Panthers in USA. Athawale wasn’t really strong electorally, and was more in news for his lukewarm efforts to unite all the factions of RPI. The other faction leaders were skeptical, and justifiably so. Athawale never had a clear agenda nor a mass base. He hitched his wagon to Congress, and managed to get in Lok Sabha for eleven years (in 1998 from Mumbai, and in 1999 & 2004 from Pandharpur). Then he lost the 2009 elections, got ‘disillusioned’ and hitched his wagon to BJP-Shiv Sena pair. He stayed faithful to BJP when the pair split in 2014 Maharashtra elections. The BJP apparently gave him a written assurance that he will be made a minister at the center, and his party will get some representation in the Maharashtra ministry as well.
After a long wait, he has finally been inducted in the Center.
And as luck would have it, the ‘anti-Dalit’ image of the BJP seemed getting sharper. The Una incident and Dayashankar Singh utterances happened within a couple of weeks. Athawale was hoping that the Rohith Vemula incident would have been forgotten, but alas!
Athawale’s recent interview becomes important in more ways than one. Just like any seasoned politician (but neither with conviction nor success), he tries to create a diversion by talking about embracing Buddhism and asking why Mayawati hasn’t embraced it so far. As if embracing Buddhism is the first and the last test of being a Dalit leader.
He has the unenviable position of occupying a ministry that is seen as notional at the best, and yet having to defend the party that finally fulfilled his dream. His obsequiousness surpasses that of Venkaiah Naidu!
Leave aside the party that he supports (or claims support from); the bothering question is will Dalits in India always be forced to choose between Devil and the deep blue sea as far as leadership is concerned?