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Maha politics: With Athawale in picture, Wankhede’s caste may add to MVA woes in local polls

Maha politics: With Athawale in picture, Wankhede's caste may add to MVA woes in local polls

What began as a raid by the NCB a month ago on an alleged drugs party involving film star Shahrukh Khan’s son Aryan aboard a cruise liner, is mired in caste and power politics over the integrity of key players.

The caste of NCB’s Sameer Wankhede has become the bone of contention between the BJP, which supports him, and the MVA leaders of ruling Maharashtra.

Wankhede joined the IRS in 2008 and is the Zonal Director of NCB investigating the cruise drugs bust case. He entered the IRS as a Scheduled Caste candidate belonging to the Mahar community. In 2006, he married Shabana Qureshi and the couple divorced in 2016.

Later, he married Marathi actress Kranti Redkar.

Currently, in the eye of a political storm, Wankhede’s family background is being questioned.

NCP minister and party spokesperson Nawab Malik has alleged that Wankhede’s parents — Dawood and Zahida — were Muslims and hence he cannot claim reservation benefit under the Scheduled Caste.

The cleric who performed rituals for Sameer’s first marriage has accepted that Sameer, as well as Shabana, belonged to Muslim families. Sameer’s father has denied the charges saying that his name on all documents is Dnyandeo and not Dawood. He has also claimed that his wife was a Muslim, who subsequently converted to Hinduism.

Sameer has denied the charges of forging caste documents for entering the IRS. His father, as well as wife Kranti, have condemned the baseless personal attack to demoralise an officer handling a sensitive case.

Athawale Enters The Show

Sameer has invoked the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in his defence, while Kranti has written an emotional letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray saying that her husband, a Marathi Manoos, was being targeted. Her latest recourse is to approach Ramdas Athawale, chief of the Republican Party of India (A), and a minister of state in the Modi cabinet. Athawale’s party has already organised an agitation at Azad Maidan supporting Sameer.

What makes Sameer’s caste important in Maharashtra politics is that he claims that he belongs to the erstwhile untouchable Mahar community (to which Dr BR Ambedkar belonged). Most members of the community have converted to Buddhism when Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956. It is the most militant among SC communities and vocal in registering dissent, as manifested in various agitations right from Ambedkar’s satyagrahas to the Dalit Panther movement. The community is also a major achiever among Scheduled Castes (in education, employment and the professions) since the constitutional safeguards came into force.

However, the community is scattered across Maharashtra’s villages, where it is a minority. In cities, the majority of the community lives in slums or chawls, but are divided into splinter groups, rarely successful in electing their representatives. Major leaders of the community are wooed by mainstream political parties of all hues and inducted as ministers.

Athawale was picked up by Sharad Pawar and inducted as an ally in the state cabinet as a social welfare minister in 1990. Athawale remained faithful to Pawar till 2009 when he was defeated in the Lok Sabha polls from the Shirdi constituency.

Attributing his defeat to lack of support from Maratha leaders, Athawale parted ways. He allied with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine till 2014 when he was nominated to Rajya Sabha by the BJP and subsequently inducted as a minister of state in the Modi cabinet.

In Maharashtra’s Dalit politics, Athawale is a mass leader allied with BJP. The only other major Dalit leader in the state is Prakash Ambedkar, whose Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has a strong voter base in Akola district as it reaches out to all backward communities across castes and religions, albeit with severe limitations owing to his strong leftist leanings.

By including Athawale in the Modi cabinet, the BJP attempted to erode the voter base of Pawar as well as Congress. The Uddhav cabinet, incidentally, has two Buddhist Dalit ministers Varsha Gaikwad and Nitin Raut.

In the context of Sameer’s case, the concerned authorities would ultimately reveal whether or not he has forged his caste certificate to secure government employment, but Athawale’s support has political overtones.

It is unlikely that the Buddhist Dalits would support Athawale in his present endeavour, but the lumpen elements supporting Athawale have the potential of creating problems for the MVA government run by Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, and headed by Uddhav Thackeray, considering that most of the municipal corporations, councils and Zilla Parishads across the state are scheduled to go to polls in the next three months.

After Fake Certificate, Comes A Photo

Meanwhile, the barrage of daily allegations by NCP minister and spokesperson Nawab Malik continues, with newer accusations made against Wankhede and BJP leaders and vice versa. The bout of Malik’s allegations in Wankhede’s case coincided with raids by central agencies on the kin of Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar — who was named in the multicrore irrigation scam some years ago and was granted a clean chit by the Anti-Corruption Bureau in 2019, then headed by the currently missing former Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh.

Malik had begun with pointing out loopholes in Sameer’s investigation — like the presence of KP Gosavi (and BJP activist Manish Bhanushali) during the raid. Gradually, the accusations got personal, with Sameer’s integrity being questioned and charged with forging his caste certificate.

Now, former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ wife’s photograph with an accused involved in a drugs case is being circulated.

Ultimately, the political polarisation — with BJP, RPI (A) and Sameer Wankhede on one side, and MVA constituent parties (Sena, NCP and Congress) on the other — is reducing the whole slanging match to a mutual blame game over which side is corrupt, jettisoning all decorum, sanctity and statutory procedures.

Whether the entire political posturing affects ongoing raids by central agencies on MVA leaders or aids the BJP in consolidating its position and wresting power in the state, remains to be seen.

The author is a senior journalist based in Mumbai

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