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Founded for Dalit cause, winning less than 1% vote. What ails RPI(A) in Maharashtra

Founded in 1999 by Ramdas Athawale, now a Union minister, the RPI(A) is today more of a social welfare organisation than political party in Maharashtra.

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Mumbai: Amit Tambe, a functionary of the Mumbai-based Republican Party of India (A), starts his day at 7 am, reaching out to workers from the Mumbai civic body — sweepers, gardeners — to see if they have any issues. He spends the second half of the day in the party’s cubbyhole office in Bandra East.

Inspired by RPI (A) chief Ramdas Athawale, Tambe left his corporate career in 2011 to join the party, which had been founded to give political representation to the Dalit community. But an average day in Tambe’s life is more about listening to neighbourhood grievances than strategising politics.

The RPI was born in 1956 out of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s vision and had its roots in the Scheduled Castes Federation. Today, RPI (A) is the biggest of the 40-odd RPI splinter groups. But, with a minuscule vote share of less than one per cent, it has been reduced to functioning as just another social welfare organisation.

The political image of the RPI (A) took a further beating earlier this month when the Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena joined hands with Jogendra Kawade’s People’s Republican Party, one of the RPI’s splinter groups, leaving Athawale visibly upset.

The RPI (A), after all, is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ally, and being its coalition partner in the Maharashtra government, Athawale felt Shinde should have consulted him.

RPI(A) has a mass presence and Athawale is a Union minister but the party’s vote share has continued to drop over the years. According to the Election Commission’s website, the state party had secured 0.85 per cent vote share in the 2009 Maharashtra assembly elections, but this dropped to 0.19 per cent in the 2014 assembly. In 2019, the handful of RPI (A) members who contested the election did so on the BJP’s symbol.

The other splinter groups of the original RPI are perhaps doing even worse. Parties like the Republican Paksha (Khoripa), Republican Party of India (Khobragade), Republican Party of India (Reformist), and Republican Party of India (Social) all recorded 0 percent vote share.

Also read: ‘Unfair’, says Sudhir Tambe after Congress suspends him over Maharashtra MLC polls embarrassment

What went wrong

Factionalism, dominance of one sub-caste over the others, and rivalry among leaders at the helm have, over the years, led to the RPI (A)’s failure to develop a strong political presence.

“One cannot get the complete picture of the RPI (A) because of its internal issues. Factionalism, rivalry among party leaders, caste, sub-caste, all these have impacted the party over the years,” said Ajinkya Gaikwad, assistant professor, politics at SIES College in Mumbai.  

He said RPI has always been in the shadow of the Congress. “Ever since it was formed on Ambedkar’s ideology, there has been confusion on who its real allies were — whether it was the Congress, the Left, or if the party should remain independent. That confusion prevails even today,” he said. 

“The history was promising. But when the party took shape, there were problems as there was no Ambedkar to hold it all together. And factionalism added to it. A weak second line of leadership could also not take it to another level,” Gaikwad added. 

Dalit activist Ashok Tangade also said that the RPI(A) had not been able to do much for its support base.

“Athawale is capable enough… but he hasn’t been able to benefit the society at large,” Tangade said.

While party leaders believe they need more representation electorally, they think their pan-India presence on grassroot level will help them get there eventually.

“Over the years, bigger parties helped us in getting representation and we have our corporators across Maharashtra. But we are yet to find a bigger representation in the form of MPs,” said senior RPI(A) leader Avinash Mahatekar.

“This is because our candidates’ names are down below in the list. Voters don’t generally look that far down. It also helps to have the symbol reach everywhere, which is not the case with us,” he added. 

Also, the party has been dominated by one caste. “The Mahar community, to which Ambedkar belonged, has dominated the party over the years. The other castes eventually didn’t have much of a say. That’s the tragedy,” said Gaikwad.

Need for support

According to activist Tangade, the RPI (A) has done moderately well for itself by forging alliances with parties in power, but could not quite reap the benefits of doing so. 

“They did not completely fail in social welfare but fell short. The larger political parties gained more from the alliance than did the RPI (A),” he said.

Party leader Mahatekar accepts they have always needed support. “For electoral representation, we need support from other parties and have taken it over the years,” he said.

He said that more and more communities are joining RPI(A). “Matang, Ramoshi, and people from other downtrodden sections are joining us,” he said. 

As far as the the BJP, which has mostly had a Brahmin-Baniya image, tied up with the RPI (A) in 2011. While the alliance may not benefit the BJP in terms of votes, it helps with optics to have a party for Dalits within the fold. It could also be why Athawale has found a ministerial berth in both Narendra Modi cabinets.

BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari acknowledged that over the years, the party has aligned with many RPI outfits. “We are with RPI(A) not just for political gains but for a larger social cause. They have also gained from us in terms of representation. They get political benefits by remaining in power with us. We also see this as more communities joining forces with us.”

Ramdas Athawale and Prakash Ambedkar

Union minister Athawale is known more for his poetic than political discourse, and his colourful clothes and one-liners invite more commentary than his political message. Tambe said junior karyakartas are disappointed in how Athawale is portrayed in the media. 

“Most of his statements are interpreted the wrong way. So I try to dispel the confusion among the workers,” he said. “I have asked Athawale sir about his fashion. He said, ‘I wear what I like. Where were all these people (his detractors) when I didn’t have the means?’” Tambe added.

Professor Gaikwad says among the RPI factions, it is RPI(A) whose workers are most active. “Even though he doesn’t act serious, he seems to be a good negotiator because big parties have allied with him. So regardless of his caricaturish behaviour, it’s a symbiotic relationship,” Gaikwad said. 

Analysts also say that the cult figure that Athawale has grown into is also a problem as the party has failed to create a second rung of leadership.

Meanwhile, Prakash Ambedkar, who is the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar seems to be gaining in popularity. He was the chief of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, another RPI splinter group that was reconstituted in 2018 as the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). 

“Ambedkar is growing in popularity at the cost of Athawale. VBA has a higher representation of the community than the RPI(A), but only if he (Ambedkar) gets his organisational skills right,” said Tangade.

However, Mahatekar said that Ambedkar did not pose any threat. “I don’t want to comment on his politics but we are not worried about his growth. He speaks and acts differently during elections.”

This month, both factions of Shiv Sena aligned with Dalit parties for the civic polls in Maharashtra. While the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena (UBT) has gone ahead with an alliance with Prakash Ambedkar, Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena (Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena) tied-up with Jogendra Kawade’s People’s Republican Party. The RPI(A) has not featured anywhere.

Athwale even expressed his displeasure that neither Shinde nor the BJP consulted him before joining hands with Kawade. 

“We have no issues with more factions coming into the fold but at least Athawale should have been consulted and such prospects should have been discussed with us. We will take it up with the chief minister and the deputy chief minister eventually,” said Mahatekar.  

History of RPI (A)

Athawale was a part of the Ambedkarite movement as a student. He subsequently became a member of the Dalit Panthers, an organisation founded by poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal that seeks to combat caste discrimination.

The organisation later split into smaller groups and Athawale was one of the leaders who kept the movement alive by aligning with fellow Dalit Panther Arun Kamble, a Buddhist scholar.

Athawale rose to prominence in the late 1970s, during a movement to rename Marathwada University after Ambedkar. The movement, which the Shiv Sena strongly opposed, saw violent clashes between Dalits and Marathas on Maharashtra’s streets. Eventually, in 1994, the university was renamed Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University as a compromise.

Within years, Athawale transitioned from activist to politician. In 1990, he joined the cabinet in the Sharad Pawar-led state government, allying with the Congress. 

Eventually, the RPI split into many factions and in 1999, Athwale formed RPI(A) and allied with the Congress-NCP. In 2011, he severed ties with Congress-NCP and joined hands with BJP

On the alliance with the BJP, RPI (A)’s Mahatekar said: “The BJP’s politics is related to public welfare and that’s why we are with them. If other Republican parties want to join hands with the BJP, we would welcome them.”

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

Also read: Education, justice, poll tickets — what are Karnataka’s mutts & how they became power centres


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