Amravati (Maharashtra), April 13: Ramkrishna Suryabhan Gawai stretches his hand, signalling for a paan and two, perhaps three, persons spring up and rush to fetch the box containing supari, some zarda and betel leaf.
Long ago, Gawai — popular in this Vidarbha belt as Dada — was an untouchable, dragging rotting carcasses of animals out of his village, like his father and, before him, his father had done. As a Mahar, the lowliest of the low, that was their job.
But that was a long time ago. “My grandchildren laugh when they hear I used to carry carcasses for a living,” he says, his paan-stained teeth showing in a broad smile.
“My son Bhusan is a high court judge in Nagpur and my daughter is a doctor,” he adds with some pride. They could take as much pride in their father who is the leader of the Republican Party of India, having managed to wrest its rising-sun symbol before the party split into four.
Gawai, a Rajya Sabha MP now, was in the Lower House in 1998. “I would have won in 1999, too, had I not had differences with Sharad Pawar,” he says.
His refusal to support Pawar then on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue had cost him the support of the Nationalist Congress Party chief though they had been friends for 30 years.
“There was a lot of hurt, but what could I do' I have my principles. I cannot discriminate against people on the basis of caste, religion and origin because I have been at the very bottom of the social order,” says Gawai feelingly.
“Lekin abhi sab theek ho gaya (But everything is fine now),” he says. With the Congress-NCP combine backing him, Gawai is ready to take on the BJP-Shiv Sena’s Anant Gude and Independent Bacchu Kadu, an activist considered a strong contender.
Gawai is sure of a win, but he says the poll was thrust on him by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. “What was the need for me to fight'” he asks, sitting on a divan on the top floor of his plush house. “I am a Rajya Sabha member and still have two years left. But Soniaji wouldn’t listen. I think I am just good to have around.”
People in Amravati and the entire Vidarbha region perhaps think so, too. They see him as a symbol of an India that is struggling to shed its feudal and casteist shackles. To them, 74-year-old Gawai is the embodiment of change.
“I used to sit outside restaurants when I wanted a cup of tea,” recalls the leader. “I was served in a different cup and had to wash it before paying the owner of the eatery.”
That was not all. He and three other “untouchables” faced persecution in college, too. They were made to wait in a different queue for the mess food and were served in a separate set of vessels. Gawai protested and the mess authorities gave in. They told him he and his friends could join the common queue.
“But the day after, I found that the college had hurriedly bought four new plates for us,’’ Gawai says with a smile. “We remained a sub-species.”
That was then. Now, Gawai is comfortable in his shiny Scorpio, with the AC on in full blast. On his side is Vasudha Deshmukh, the state minister for public works and tourism, and at the back sit two armed bodyguards.
When Gawai’s cavalcade enters Darapur — where he grew up an untouchable, dragging carcasses that no one else would touch— a noisy crowd falls over itself to bow before the son of the soil who made it good.
The crumbling mud-and-brick house where he was born has a door only 5 feet high. Inside, it is very dark. As Gawai steps out into the sun, he rubs his eyes. He whips out his Ray-Ban glares and puts them on. Looking around in the blinding sunlight, he says: “It is better this way.”
“And, yes,” he adds, “no one drags out dead animals from the village any more. The municipality sends tractors for that.”