On 7th April, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra – an alliance between Adv. Prakash Ambedkar-led Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, and the Asaduddin Owaisi led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) – published its electoral manifesto. The forging of this platform is an important intervention in the upcoming elections in Maharashtra – a state which faces not just the Lok Sabha Elections, but also the State Assembly elections later this year. This is the first of a two-part GroundXero coverage. Click here for Part Two.
What is the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi?
VBA is a coalition of Dalit, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Muslim leaders jointly formed by Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh leader Adv. Prakash Ambedkar and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi. The main points of their manifesto cover issues related to protecting constitutional democracy in the country, education, health, insurance and banking, social security, gender issues, and the issues faced by the marginalised sections – Dalits, Bahujan, religious minorities and unorganised workers.
In the recent past, Prakash Ambedkar has emerged as a prominent face in several struggles against the BJP regime, such as those around the 13-point roster system that was targeted against hiring Dalit, ST and OBC university teachers, the institutional murder of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad, upper-caste reservation, and the Bhima Koregaon Elgar Parishad. He was one of the co-organisers of the Parishad.
AIMIM, on the other hand, has also gained recent grounds in the state whose minority population is reeling under an iron-handed saffron rule. The party fielded 24 candidates, including three Dalits, in the 2014 Assembly elections. Though many of them were debutantes, two of them won, three finished as runners-up, and eight candidates took the third place. In some places, even the losing candidates fared better than the NCP-Congress contenders.
The mainstream political articulation of Dalit-Bahujan politics in Maharashtra has always run into quagmires, often because of co-option of the leadership by the ruling forces. This is in spite of the illustrious history of grassroots Dalit Bahujan movements in the state, led by the Phules, Satyashodhaks, B. R. Ambedkar, Annabhau Sathe, Fatima Sheikh, Pandita Ramabai, Namdeo Dhasal, Dadasaheb Gaikwad, and many others. The Republican Party of India – the largest Dalit political force in Maharashtra at one time – became fragmented and was largely co-opted or neutralised as a political force not very long after the death of B. R. Ambedkar. Though Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party emerged as the single-largest Bahujan party in Maharashtra in 2007, it was washed out following the Modi-wave that swept Maharashtra in 2014. This political vacuum in Bahujan politics is where Prakash Ambedkar, a veteran Ambedkarite leader and two-time Member of Parliament, seems to have stepped into as the Lok Sabha Election campaigns unfold in the state.
The calls for social change given from the Elgar Parishad on 31st December 2017, and the subsequent anti-caste agitation in the state provoked by attacks on peaceful Dalit visitors to Bhima Koregaon on 1st January 2018, saw a historic re-structuring of the traditional caste alliances in the state. The brutal attack on the Bhima Koregaon movement by RSS-linked groups have been seen by many as an example of the ruling Brahman-Maratha defense mechanisms on high alert. This has been a regular feature of how Maharashtra’s ruling classes have dealt with mass mobilizations throughout history, such as what was witnessed during the Dalit Panthers movement.
The anti-caste movement’s pressures on the ruling classes this time were also furthered by the fuming tensions between Marathas and OBC communities in the state after the Fadnavis government agreed to Maratha reservations. Maratha reservations would be eating into the existing quota reserved for OBCs. After the Elgaar Parishad, Prakash Ambedkar – one of the co-organisers of the Parishad – emerged briefly as a prominent voice in defense of the meeting. But after the ‘mainstream media’ coverage of subsequent raids and arrests shifted drastically from Bhima Koregaon to ‘Urban Naxals’, Ambedkar was seen to distance himself from the discourse. He had also distanced himself from the continuing struggle for release of the political prisoners, and for scrapping draconian laws such as the UAPA which have been repeatedly used in such situations to incarcerate agitators including Dalits, Bahujans, Marxists, journalists, social activists, and Muslims alike.
His campaign, however, has drawn support from a wide range of social movements, including the coalition of forces that had co-organised the Elgar Parishad. The front is contesting all 48 of Maharashtra’s Lok Sabha seats. Prakash Ambedkar himself is contesting from both Akola and Solapur. The BSP candidate in Solapur has already withdrawn his candidature against Ambedkar.
‘The Akola Pattern’
Prakash Ambedkar is known for what has been called the ‘Akola Pattern’ of representational politics. Akola is the home constituency for Ambedkar, which he represented from 1998 to 2004. Akola is a town in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, 250 kms away from Nagpur. Vidarbha has been one of the worst-affected regions in the country under the decades-long agrarian crisis, recording some of the highest numbers of farmer suicides every single year. Since 2004 the BJP has been winning from there.
In brief terms, the ‘Akola pattern’ is a strategy of widening representation of candidates belonging to the Bahujan communities, going beyond the Buddhist Dalit communities in the state from which Ambedkar himself hails. According to the 2011 census data, 55% of the population here are Hindus, 30% Muslims, and 13% Buddhists. The Dalit population, much like elsewhere in the state, is split among Buddhists and Hindus. The official category of ‘Hindu’ also includes the sizeable Dhangar community – a traditionally shepherding class officially classified by the Indian state as a ‘Nomadic Tribe’. Prakash Ambedkar’s ‘Akola pattern’ involves guaranteeing the increased representation of Hinduised Dalits, nomadic communities such as the Dhangars, and other Bahujan communities. He claims that this is what Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who also happens to be his grandfather, envisaged as a model for representational politics. Prakash Ambedkar and his party has however been criticised by a section of Buddhist Dalits in the state for what was seen as an attempt to dilute the issue of representation of Dalits through such a model.
The VBA has claimed that in the upcoming elections, their main strategy is to expand the ‘Akola pattern’ to as much of the state as possible. They also maintain that this is impossible under a Congress-NCP alliance since these parties have a well-documented history of protecting the interests of dominant castes and landed classes in the state.
The Congress had earlier dubbed VBA as BJP’s “B Team”, claiming that they will eat into the Congress’ votes, thereby helping the BJP win. Similar allegations were made against Mayawati in Karnataka last year when she showed interest in forging an alliance with the JDS; the AIMIM was, in much the same way, accused of the same.
Ambedkar was however initially open to a broad alliance as long as his conditions were accepted. He had asked for 12 Lok Sabha seats and an action plan in the Congress’ election manifesto towards reigning in Hindutva politics. Though the Congress and its allies might have agreed to the second demand, they would not offer more than four to six Lok Sabha seats to the VBA.
Ambedkar subsequently ended negotiations with the Congress when it became clear that his terms would not be respected. “How will the Congress give up [so many] seats for us! We always knew this wasn’t possible. They would have hardly given us 3-4 seats, why would we take such crumbs from a big party when we know that we can do fairly well on our own?” asked one of the VBA campaigners GX spoke to. “The other thing is, Congress would never want the Vanchit Bahujan to steer the politics of the state. Their local leaderships and cadres would sabotage our votes at the ground level [even after their top leadership agreed to seat sharing], even if that means asking people to vote for the BJP, even if only for this one time. We know because in this state we have seen enough of Congress’ politics throughout history. We have not forgotten the 70s when the Congress created Bal Thackerey and the Shiv Sena as their own B-Team, in order to counter growing Dalit militancy in the state,” he went on to add. Indeed, his concerns of the Congress-NCP cadres sabotaging the prospects of VBA candidates are well founded, given the extent of Hinduisation of every mainstream party in Maharashtra, across castes. On the ground level, the cadres of Congress, NCP, Sena or BJP, are often almost indistinguishable, and none of these forces would take a burgeoning Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim political alliance lightly.
However, it is not just the Congress that have taken shots at the Aghadi. Several social activists and commentators have also voiced similar apprehensions, including senior journalist Nikhil Wagle and Retd. Justice B. G. Kolse-Patil. Kolse-Patil was one of the co-organisers of the Elgar Parishad and had maintained close ties with Prakash Ambedkar till the latter refused to join the Congress-NCP alliance. Eventually, Kolse-Patil withdrew his support after Ambedkar decided to put up an AIMIM candidate from Aurangabad – a seat that Kolse-Patil wanted to stand from. He is now standing as an independent candidate from the same constituency. Wagle has also gone on to raise questions about the source of funding for Ambedkar’s big election rallies across the state hinting that he might be getting paid by the BJP. Questions have been raised about Ambedkar reaching his rallies on a helicopter, to which he said, “Leaders of Congress-NCP like Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan have Manuwadi ideology. They think how a Shudra like Prakash Ambedkar can use a helicopter for election campaign.”
How clearly drawn are the Congress-NCP and BJP-Sena battle lines?
As negotiations started regarding candidates to be put up, various members across the BJP-Congress-NCP-Sena spectrum have as usual started switching camps in order to get seats. Bharati Pawar who had won the 2014 elections from NCP, is a candidate for the BJP this time. Rajendra Gavit, the sitting BJP lawmaker from Palghar has switched between Congress, BJP, and Sena over the course of one year. During the Palghar bypoll of 2018, Gavit – a former minister of the state – quit the Congress and joined BJP. Now he will contest from the same seat on a Shiv Sena ticket.
While pre-election switching for seats has been a tradition in Indian electoral politics, the added feature this time are the growing ‘contradictory’ political colours within ‘political dynasties’ – particularly across the older and the newer generations of family politicians. Sujay Vikhe Patil, son of veteran Congress legislator and leader of opposition in the State Assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, is fighting on a BJP ticket. The embarrassment made senior Vikhe Patil resign from his party. Ironically, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil was once a Shiv Sainik and the Shiv Sena had simultaneously given ministerial berths to him and his father in the state and central governments. He had defected and joined the Congress when the Sena lost power in the Assembly. Rajya Sabha MP and senior Sena leader Sanjay Raut has invited the senior Vikhe Patil to re-join the Sena, now that he has quit Congress.
Other such examples include former NCP MP Nivedita Mane’s son Dhairyasheel Mane, who is contesting on a Shiv Sena ticket. For the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress has given a ticket to Navinchandra Bandivadekar, who is allegedly associated with Sanatan Sanstha – a Hindu terrorist group that have been accused of murdering Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and Gowri Lankesh. Bandivadekar, who has been associated with the Congress since 2005, participated in protest rallies last year opposing the arrest of Vaibhav Raut – a member of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti – whose Nalasopara (North Mumbai) residence was raided by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) for assembling explosives. Bandivadekar came out in support of Raut, claiming that he was wrongly implicated.
To be sure, the VBA has its own small share of ‘political turncoats.’ Anil Jhadhav, Prakash Ambedkar’s candidate from Pune, was in the BJP until last year.
‘You must ally with the Congress or fascism will be here’
The argument as to why every secular party should ally with the Congress in these upcoming elections is not a political one, but merely mathematical. Any attempt at a third front is being vilified as veiled attempt to support the BJP. The Congress’ own leader Rahul Gandhi has, however, elected to contest from Wayanad, ostensibly to ensure a ‘safe seat’ for himself, where he would be fighting essentially against the CPI(M) and not the BJP.
Notwithstanding the huge turnouts at Ambedkar’s election rallies, many– including Wagle – have claimed that large sections of Dalits as well as the Dhangars will not actually vote for the VBA. The Dhangars have historically voted for the BJP-Shiv Sena, and Wagle claims this time won’t be much different. He also goes on to claim that Ambedkar’s attempts at widening the idea of representation from only Buddhist Dalits to a wider Bahujan populace is merely going to push Buddhist Dalit voters away from his party. This arithmetic leads Wagle to conclude that not only are the VBA candidates not going to get a significant number of votes, but their net effect would only be to cut into the anti-BJP votes that would have otherwise gone to the Congress-NCP coalition.
Other commentators have disputed these claims. Whether the Dhangars vote for VBA or not remains to be seen. But it is true that post-Maratha reservations, the conflict between Marathas and OBCs in the state has created a crisis for the ruling Sena-BJP. An example of the strife was seen in September last year, when one of the party’s Maratha MLAs, Harshvardhan Jadhav, quit the Sena accusing the leadership of throttling his agenda around the Maratha quota. This time he is fighting as an independent from Aurangabad and has vouched his support for Narendra Modi. The Sena’s huge OBC base on the other hand seems to be getting uncomfortable with the party as well, in part because of how much the Sena has leaned towards Maratha reservations. Some observers are predicting that a part of the disgruntled OBC votes from the Sena could swing towards VBA. “Even if Dhangars don’t vote for us, they would surely not have voted for the Congress-NCP in any case. And in the absence of a third front like the VBA, the OBC vote would have remained within the Sena-BJP – there is no way that vote bank would have shifted to the Maratha dominated Congress-NCP. So how are we cutting any anti-BJP votes?” asked one VBA campaign team member. In an earlier era, top OBC leaders of the Shiv Sena like Narayan Rane and Chagan Bhujbal had quit the party along with a huge number of cadre and joined the NCP/Congress since they were very unhappy with the upper caste/brahmin domination in the Sena. But today such shifts would be unlikely, given Maratha-OBC tensions.
Ambedkarite cultural activist and ex-member of the Kabir Kala Manch, Sachin Mali, told Jyoti Punwani from Rediff, “All progressives go on about the danger to secularism and the need to ally with the Congress. But are we supposed to overlook its casteist practices? Only Ambedkar challenged [Hindutva activist and accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence] Sambhaji Bhide; no one from the Congress-NCP did. They have in fact nursed Bhide.” Narendra Modi has in fact hailed Bhide as his guru on several occasions.
The question of aligning with the Congress-NCP needs to factor in the history of these parties in the state vis-a-vis their treatment of marginal communities. At the heart of this history lies the infamous ‘Sugar Lobby’ of the state. We defer this to the next and final part of the discussion.
Cover Image: The Wire