Ramdas Athawale: poet, painter, ex-Dalit Panther
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Mumbai: Google ‘Ramdas Athawale’, and you find three results for his ‘funny comedy speech’ on the first page itself. The search engine also mentions ‘Ramdas Athawale poems’ among related searches. A search for his images throws up some really wacky pictures of him wearing gaudy colours and combinations. His public speaking has generous dollops of humour mostly due to his original four-line couplets. He is an instant poet and can quickly coin a couplet on anything contemporary, from drought to mocking his rivals. Sample this: “Desh mein chal rahi hain Narendra Modi ki Aandhi, Usme Ud Jayenge Sabhi Gandhi”. (There is a Narendra Modi storm across the nation, and it will sweep away all Gandhis)
But his favourite poetic fancy is self-deprecating sarcasm and unabashed display of his ministerial ambitions. Now, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducting him as a minister, Athawale’s wish has been granted.
Athawale was not always hungry for titles. In the 1970s, he was a firebrand activist who, under the banner of Dalit Panthers (a revolutionary organisation inspired by the Black Panther Party in the US), joined causes that are dear to the Dalit constituency. A senior journalist, who has tracked Athawale for several decades and who did not wish to be identified, said Athawale was one of the only two politicians in Maharashtra—the other being Sharad Pawar—who could call out his karyakartas (workers) and followers by their first name wherever he went in the state. “He is a great organiser and making him a minister would be wasting his talent. He has little administrative talent and may prove to be completely useless as a minister,” this journalist said.
Ramdas Bandu Athawale, 57, president of the Republican Party of India (Athawale faction) and Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the BJP from Maharashtra, is arguably the most potent mass leader in Dalit politics in Maharashtra. His rivals—B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar and Vidarbha-based Jogendra Kawade—never compared well with Athawale in terms of popularity with the Dalit masses. Yet, political observers in Maharashtra who have followed Dalit politics insist Athawale has compromised a great deal on the Dalit cause. “His commitment to Dalit cause is now restricted to symbolism and political exigencies of the day. Power politics has made him a white collar politician like it has other Dalit leaders in Maharashtra. Still, he retains a rare personal warmth and accessibility no other Dalit leader has,” said the journalist. This journalist recalls Athawale’s early years as a student leader at Mumbai’s Siddharth College which B.R. Ambedkar founded. Athawale never completed his graduation. “The poems that he coins now are frivolous but he is also a good painter,” the journalist says.
A Buddhist, Athawale was one of the Dalit activists in 1972 when Dalit Panthers was founded by Namdeo Dhasal, a formidable revolutionary poet and Dalit activist, along with others. Dalit Panthers later spilt into several splinter groups and Athawale went with Arun Kamble, a Buddhist scholar and one of the founders. It was the issue of renaming of Marathwada University after B.R. Ambedkar in 1977 that provided a boost to Athavale. “He is a product of this movement,” said the journalist. This was the period when Dalit Panther activists like Athawale used to fight street battles with Shiv Sena which was against the renaming. This was also the time when Athawale travelled across Maharashtra to mobilise support. He still retains many of the followers and supporters he enrolled during this period.
In the mid-80s, then Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar spotted Athawale’s talent as an organiser and leader of the Dalit masses. After much persuasion, Athawale became a minister for social welfare in the Pawar government. “This was the beginning of his end as a raw, activist politician. Power politics mellowed him down and made him aloof,” recalled the senior journalist.
This journalist blames Pawar for Athawale’s ‘end’ as an independent activist and says Pawar introduced Athavale to the corrupting ways of power politics.
From the mid-80s till 2011, Athawale stuck to his alliance with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party and was content to get a share in the spoils of power though he was never made a minister at the Centre. He continued to maintain his support base but became almost entirely dependent on the Congress-NCP for his political survival. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections though, he got a rude jolt from the Congress-NCP when the strong Maratha lobby in the two parties ensured his defeat in Shirdi constituency. He snapped his alliance with Congress-NCP and just before 2014 Lok Sabha elections joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
Unlike other Dalit activists or politicians like Dhasal himself who died in 2014, Prakash Ambedkar, and Kawade, Athawale never had an academic bend of mind. In fact, he is increasingly considered a sort of court jester with his hilarious poems, and casual approach to public speeches and parliamentary discussions. Some years back, when Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi was Lok Sabha speaker, he told journalists in Mumbai that whenever atmosphere in the House would turn tense, he would get Athawale to speak so that he could provide some ‘comic relief’. In 2008, Athawale was miffed that he was not selected as a contestant on the popular Bigg Boss show in which Congress politician Sanjay Nirupam, who now heads Mumbai Congress, participated. His supporters protested against this “injustice to a Dalit leader”. In 2014, he brought in Bollywood actor Rakhi Sawant, who has starred in a few forgettable roles, into his party.
Would Athawale be politically useful for the BJP and the NDA? People who have tracked him say he would be useful for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh polls and the Mumbai municipal polls where as many as 60 civic wards have a strong Dalit presence.
“He is the only Dalit politician in Maharashtra who maintains a large army of lumpen elements in Dalit politics. That is his strength. Deepak Nikalje, one of his senior party office-bearers, is gangster Chhota Rajan’s brother. Like the Shiv Sena in the 1970s and 80s which built an army of lumpen Marathi elements in Mumbai, Athawale has his own army of followers. These factors could come in handy for the BJP,” said the journalist.