Caste in politics is not new in India. Bihar elections have given clear indication of the importance of caste based politics. Caste has always been playing a vital role in elections since independence, both in the way to win and loose. In this article, I am presenting empirical experiences of Aljapur village from Barshi Block of Solapur district. Aljapur is the village from which Jabbar Patel, who made movie 'Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar' on the life of Babasaheb, hails. Traditionally, scheduled castes, and other backward castes have been kept away from the mainstream politics of the village. A few educated dalit youth like Babasaheb Wadve came forward and started fighting in elections. In 2010, for the first time, he became a gram panchayat member and started challenging the domination of upper castes in the village panchayat. As a member he made strong impact in the village political system in his last tenure.
The Aljapur gram panchayat election in 2015 has set an example for Ambedkarite politicians that they can move beyond reserved seats and win the election. "Yes, I am ready to elect Sarpanch and Deputy Sarpanch without any oppositions but you have to give Sarpanch post to person who belongs to the Lohar or Dhangar caste. The reason behind this demand is they have never got the opportunity to become political representatives in the village due to being in minority" These were the word of Babasaheb Wadve, a Ambedkarite social worker who runs 'Parivartan Samajik Sanstha' in Marathwada region of Maharashtra. When the upper caste traditional politically dominant group of people come to Wadve asking to have election without any opposition in the village, he understood the politics behind having elections without opposition. This time the Sarpanch post was not reserved, it was open for all. Since the post was open for all, the upper caste politically dominant people had planned to ask the reserved category people to stay away from the power and just become a member in the gram panchayat. Before participation in the village meeting, he called for above purpose, he put the demand of Sarpanch from Dhangar or Lohar castes, which was not accepted by the upper caste dominant group of the village. Hence the election that took place in the village where true democracy was practiced.
Babasaheb Wadve made a seven member panel including members from backward and minority communities (2 SC, 1 OBC and 4 Muslims). All the members filed the form, fulfilling all requirements. The opposite panel also filed their 7 members nomination. At the same time they started negotiating with few members of Wadve panel through different ways to get their support. With some promises they could convince 3 panel members and break the alliance of Wadve panel. On the day of withdrawal Wadve panel got to know that their three members belonging to Mulsim community joined hands with opposite panel. Wadve panel now had only 4 members where it was clear if they want to win the election they have to win all the sites. During the campaign also opposition made many attempts to get other members of Wadve panel to be in their own support. They also offered money to couple of members, but that didn't worked. When nothing was working on them the upper caste political dominants started ill treating them, the threats were to kill them, hurt their family members and so on.
The opposition of Wadve panel put huge money to get support of voters in the village. They offered alcohol, non- vegetarian food and cash to voters. In Wadve's panel all the members belonged to poor families and they did not have money to spend on such things. They were just requesting people to cast their vote for the development of the village. The real impact on people's mind was made by Wadve's speeches. He says, "I am here for the poor, I am with this member to bring political equality in the village, I am for the development of the village, I am here to bring my village into the national map and create a respectful identity." His work through the 'Parivartan Samjik Sanstha' in the village to convert it into a 'Open Defecation Free' village and for which the village received the Block level award, helped him to build the confidence in the villagers. Though many voters enjoyed the parties thrown by the opposition they gave their support to Wadve keeping hope in development.
The political situation turned dramatic in this election. Till this election there was no ideological or party based politics in the village. Things were normal but when the fight between Dalit led panel versus upper caste led panel began, the politics of the village got ideologies and party names. Upper caste panel comes under the banner of Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress party together. Wadve Panel got support of Bharip Bhahujan Mahasangh a political party of Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. The egos of upper caste got hurt and hatred politics on Babasaheb Wadve began, all the opposition panel only worked to beat Babasaheb Wadve. They were more concerned for Babasaheb alone than his panel. They thought at any cost Babasaheb should not win the election and become even a member of gram panchayat. In the Ward from where Babasaheb contested election, the opposition spend huge sums of money and time. It was not difficult for the upper caste panel to work against Babasaheb because he and his Sarpanch candidate both contested election on general seat. On the day of voting, everything went smoothly but there was a picture outside voting booth showing that Babasaheb Wadve was getting less votes. The supporter of Wadve panel tried their best to get their supporters' votes. Mahdev Umbhre one of their strong support who worked the entire day to bring people to the polling booth had not cast his vote thinking that he will do it befor the last hour of the day. He was tired hence went home and slept for some time. Suddenly at 5.54pm, one of Wadve's supporters realised that Mahadev Umbhre has not yet cast his vote, he went to Mahadev's home and brought him at around 5.56pm to the booth. Umbhre cast his vote with just 2 minutes left of the day, and it was the last vote. Umbhre belongs to Maratha community but is a follower of Ambedkarite ideology and well known as Wadve's supporter. His vote turned to utmost importance because Babasaheb Wadve won by only one vote. If Umbhre had not cast his valuable vote it would have been a tie. On the result day, everyone went to Barshi (Block place), where they got the final result that all members of Wadve panel's won the election. The members who left Wadve panel and joined opposition also won. It meant all the members who filed their form as Wadve panel won but since they joined the opposition's hand they were not with Wadve panel. Soon after the result announcement, all the Wadve panel members went to Dr. Ambedkar's statue in Barshi and paid their respects.
After result opposition again started their politics and put the pressure on Wadve panel's members to support their candidate for Sarpanch Post. Opposition wanted one members support to make their candidate Sarpanch where Wadve already had 4 members. When the pressure increase on Wadve panel all the member went underground on the name of toure. They were only in touch with key Wadve supporters, got updates the village political situation. Opposition didn't stop their activities they even tried to search them where they went on tour. They visit the elected members relatives homes in different villages and give wrong messages about the members. Few of relatives also got scared by this activity and got disturbed their daily life. For the all the members travel and other expenditure Wadve took the loan and made expenditure. Because other members were not in the position to spend any money. The weakness of any poor is the money, either they don't do something because of money problem or they sell themselves because of the money. So Wadve took care of this by getting help from his friends.
One night before the election of Sarpanch, all 4 members came back in the village. In the early morning one of the relatives of the Opposition member went to Wadve panel's Sarpanch candidate's home and threatened her husband, saying, 'tell your wife to not file the form for the Sarpanch post'. The opposition wanted to have a fight between the two panels and stop the election of Sarpanch. Wadve called all his friends and supporters from outside the village. People in the social work field and well qualified people gathered in the village. There were almost 150-200 youths who gathered there after the morning incidence in the village. Wadve had good networks with different groups and sanghathans and members from "Samrat group", a group started by 100 youths for social development; 'Swabhimani Sanghthana' run by Nana Shitule in Marathwada; Bharip Bahujan Mahasang (whose district president is Milind Rode) and myself included visited in the morning and spent the whole day as observers and researchers. The opposition got scared by watching the large number of Wadve supporters, and called the police of Vairag circle police station. One of the members also submitted an application to election officer requesting postponement of the Sarpanch election due to the presence of the huge crowd outside. The situation changed dramatically, in the morning there were only two police constables who didn't dare to stop the fight in the morning, and after one hour the police inspector along with a team of 10 more constables reached the village.
At 2:00pm Wadve panel come out from the gram panchayat office and informed that Lalita Gadekar who belongs to Dhangar (OBC) community became the Sarpanch and Babasaheb Wadve (SC) became the Deputy Sarpanch. All the supporters of Wadve who came from outside and from the village gathered in the Dalit hamlet to wish them for their achievements.
Wadve addressed the gathering, when he made his panel he had a plan in his mind and made a manifesto of village development. His more than 15 years experience of grassroots work gave him clear understanding of development. He was the man behind making the village Open Defecation Free that give Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan award to village. As he had mentioned many things in his panel manifesto, he promised people that he will fulfil those. He also promised villagers that we are not representatives of only few people, we will work for those who cast their vote for Wadve panel and also for those who did not. He took the responsibility of creating a better and peaceful life for each and every individual, and to maintain the communal harmony in village. His ambition is to make this village well developed that will be recognised on the national map. The Sarpanch also promised villagers that she will work for the village development irrespective of caste and religion. This village elections have given a new vision to Dalit politicians to come together under the umbrella of Ambedkarite ideology and be power holders.
Nitin Dhaktode is currently pursuing MPhil in Development Studies at TISS Mumbai. This article is based on the empirical data collected during his field visits.