Friday, October 08, 2004

Shiv Sena on dalit 'onslaught'

Krishna Patil, a Sainik in Gangapur, points out that this is Maratha country and the Sena alone guards the interests of this dominant caste against the onslaughts of the Muslims and Dalits.



It is difficult to imagine that just weeks ago the land here was brown and barren, wracked by dushkal (drought), haunted by farmers’ suicides.

As you cross the Godavari river and enter Marathwada, it seems like a pastoral paradise. Neat rows of jowar and bajra, cotton and oilseeds stretch out into the far horizon. Even the wastelands are carpeted with lush-green grass and clumps of joyous yellow wild flowers—the perfect pasture for the dhangars (the shepherd community) to graze their herds on.

The rain gods have been kind this year, washing away not just the ravages of four consecutive years of drought but also blunting the edge of anti-incumbency that had helped the Shiv Sena-BJP combine win six of the eight Lok Sabha seats in this arid zone of Maharashtra in the general elections four months ago.

The plentiful monsoons in Marathwada, which has 46 assembly seats in the eight districts of Aurangabad, Parbhani, Beed, Osmanabad, Nanded, Latur, Hingoli and Jalna, are definitely cause for cheer in the Congress-NCP camp. But it would be a fallacy to presume that the tide has turned in their favour.

The Mararathwada region—which was part of the erstwhile empire of the Nizam of Hyderabad—has been a stronghold of the Shiv Sena for nearly two decades and the BJP’s OBC nursery for some years. And despite some cracks in the edifice, the saffron combine is here to stay.

That the Sena is a formidable force becomes clear within minutes of entering Aurangabad district from western Maharashtra. Bands of young men, sporting saffron scarves and Bal Thackeray badges, crowd wayside dhabas in rural Gangapur and are equally in-your-face in the town of Jalna or the city of Aurangabad. Krishna Patil, a Sainik in Gangapur, points out that this is Maratha country and the Sena alone guards the interests of this dominant caste against the onslaughts of the Muslims and Dalits. The view is echoed by a bunch of Sainiks in Jalna who talk of the bomb that went off in a local mosque last month, and has united all the Marathas against the ‘‘violent’’ Muslims.

Bal Thackeray has groomed them well. The Sena supremo was instrumental in making the Marathwada region—starting with the volatile city of Aurangabad— the most formidable Sena bastion outside its traditional base in Mumbai. He came to Aurangabad in 1988 and made fiery anti-Muslim speeches—which went down well in a region with a 30% Muslim populace and at a time when Hindutva was on the ascent nationwide.

But the real boost to the Sena came when it spearheaded the agitation against the renaming of the Marathwada University in 1992. Since 1978, the issue had caused widespread caste tension in the state with the Dalits pressing for it to be named after Dr Ambedkar and the Marathas vociferously opposing it.

In 1992, Sharad Pawar as chief minister effected a compromise—naming the university Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada Vidyapeeth. The Maratha youth saw red—or rather saffron and flocked to the Sena. Even today, when asked if Sharad Pawar would cut into the Maratha votes, a group of Sainiks scoffed at this reporter’s naivete. ‘‘How can you call him a Maratha—after what he did in 1992?’’ they asked.

Building on the twin planks of caste and communal identity, the Sena rapidly spread into ‘‘every village’’ in Marathwada. Their fabled organisational capacity (the name of Diwakar Raote as the organisational lynchpin is often mentioned) helped. As did the general decline of the Congress and the subsequent split in the party.

If Shiv Sena was concentrating on the Maratha community, the BJP was trying to garner OBC support and shed its image of being a minor party of the numerically insignificant Brahmins. Since BJP’s biggest state leader Gopinath Munde was an OBC from Beed in Marathwada (he belongs to the traditional nomad caste of Vanjare), the BJP tried the ‘MADHAV’ experiment— bringing together the castes of Mali (gardener, equivalent to the Keoris in UP-Bihar), Dhangar (shepherd—much like the Gujjars of north India) and Vanjare (Banjara).

Although MADHAV never assumed the scope of Gujarat’s once famous KHAM or UP’s AJGAR combine, it has clearly paid dividends in Marathwada. Of the six Lok Sabha victories, BJP and Shiv Sena shared three each. In the 1999 assembly polls, the BJP won 10 and the Sena 16, while the Congress-NCP combine together bagged only 16 of the 46 seats in the region.

The saffron combine’s big hope is that they will make even bigger gains in Marathwada this time to offset the losses in Mumbai and other urban centres.

That could be difficult. The rains apart, the UPA government’s Rs 500-crore package for drought-hit Maharashtra within a month of assuming office in Delhi, the state government’s waiver of electricity bills and farmers loans, and the positive reaction to Sonia Gandhi’s tyaag has also weakened the current of anti-incumbency.

The Indian voter’s stock reply at election time is usually barabar ka takkar hain (neck and neck), or ‘‘50:50.’’ For once, Marathwada with its 46 seats may prove them right.

Source: The Indian Expess, October 8, 2004


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