To claim the political legacy of late Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Congress and BJP had traded barbs on the 123rd birth anniversary of the biggest Dalit icon on Monday. The verbal war stooped to lower with both accusing each other of disrespecting Ambedkar and neglecting Dalits.
The spat was regarded as poll propaganda for Dalit votes as Dalits in India constitute 16% of the population. However, experts say, Dalits in Maharashtra, who constitute approximately 10.5% of the population, have been moving away from the UPA over the past decade and looking at other parties.
This was evident when Ramdas Athawale-led Republican Party of India (RPI-A) struck an alliance with Shiv Sena and BJP and another Dalit leader and chief of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh Prakash Ambedkar decided to go alone. Jogendra Kawade's RPI has, however, aligned with the Congress.
In Maharashtra, Congress used to get the major chunk of Dalit votes, but after RPI and BSP came into existence, the party's Dalit support has gradually declined.
Arjun Dangale, a Dalit leader, says, "Price rise and corruption are the two major issues which affect Dalits the most. Their economic well-being was compromised during the Congress-NCP rule. They will not vote for the UPA."
"Besides, the Indu Mill land has not been actually given for the Ambedkar Memorial despite all rhetoric, which has further angered Dalits. They will support the BJP-Sena-RPI alliance," adds Dangale, who hopes the alliance wins up to 30 seats out of 48.
The anti-incumbency mood may also benefit the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which entered into the state in 2004 and has altered the political landscape since then. The party has influence in Vidarbha and may affect the outcome of at least six seats in the region. Also, a few Aam Aadmi Party candidates, like Medha Patkar, are likely to get considerable Dalit votes.
Observers say Dalits in state are well educated and politically aware. Political analyst Kumar Ketkar says, "The Dalits in state don't vote en bloc. They support different parties."
The RPI, which was established by Ambedkar, has split into more than 50 factions since his death in 1956. Among them, only four are politically relevant — the Athavale faction, the Ambedkar faction led by Babasheb's grandson Prakash, the Kawade faction and the RS Gavai faction.
While all RPIs enjoy support from the Neo-Buddhist Dalits (Mahar), the Hindu Dalits (Charmkars, Matang etc) have been supporting the saffron alliance for years, says political analyst Surendra Jondhale.
All Dalit parties in the state allied with Congress, and later with NCP, and remained restricted to one or two seats in Parliament. Though Prakash attempted to build a larger social coalition with other backward castes, the experiment did not succeed beyond Akola district.
Mayawati, on the other hand, became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh four times through clever experiments of social engineering. "One advantage that Mayawati and Kanshi Ram had was that Dalits constituted over 21% of the total population in Uttar Pradesh, a figure which is almost double than that of Maharashtra," says Ramdas Athawale.
Dalits in Maharashtra
10.5% of the total population in Maharashtra
15,000 average Dalit voters in each constituency
18 constituencies to have the impact of Dalit voters the most — 8 in Marathwada, 6 in Mumbai, 2 in Western Maharashtra and 2 in Vidarbha