Rahul Dongardive waves at the portly owner of the university canteen, and his favourite combo meal appears out of thin air: Sweet tea and spicy sambhar-vada.
Then he says the unspeakable. “Mayawati is not the true inheritor of Ambedkar’s legacy,” the 27-year-old journalism student says, as other students looked on at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad, a sprawling 650-acre campus 300 kilometres east of Mumbai.
It is not a random comment at the region’s biggest university that caters primarily to students from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backwards castes.
In the region where B.R. Ambedkar long worked to improve education standards in the community, brand Mayawati is not cutting much ice in one of Maharashtra’s hubs of Dalit student politics.
Reaching out to her constituency nationwide is crucial for the political ambitions of Mayawati, who wants to be India’s first Dalit prime minister. She is hoping to establish her presence in Maharashtra with this election.
Not much luck here, though.
“Her one-point agenda is power,” Dongardive says as the others nod in agreement. “The BSP had some connect with Babasaheb’s philosophy when her political mentor, Kanshi Ram, was alive. Not anymore.”
He points to the moss-green wall of the canteen, where posters of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have pictures of Kanshi Ram, the late mentor of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati.
“Maharashtra is not UP,” says history Professor U. Bagade. “Dalits here have been a part of the political process for a long time. Mayawati is just perpetuating the caste structure. And her lack of agenda could actually be a blow to Dalit politics.”
Historically, the Congress has benefited most from Dalit vote, thanks to the multiple factions in the pro-Dalit Republican Party of India.
But Mayawati’s party says it is confident of winning at least 15 of the state’s Parliamentary seats — and is fielding candidates in all 48.
“In the last Lok Sabha elections, we won 4 per cent of the votes even though we were hardly organised. This time, we aim to get 10 per cent,” says BSP’s Aurangabad in-charge Prabhakar Pardhe.
Party youth wing leader Sumit Waghmare (27), an MA student in political science, says he is certain the social engineering formula will work in Maharashtra as it did in UP.
“It has rattled the existing Dalit leadership here.”
For some, there are more pressing issues than caste.
“We don’t speak English fluently… that’s a huge handicap in this recession-hit market,” says Landge Sheshrao (28), a political science student. “We are more concerned about our career prospects than Mayawati’s.”