The Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, while promising a new political articulation of the socially marginalised communities of Maharashtra, has also sparked a sharp debate. Their refusal to forge an alliance with the Congress-NCP in the state is being seen by a section of people as ‘aiding fascism’, that is, effectively ensuring electoral victory for the BJP. But the question of whether to ally needs to factor in the history of such parties in the state vis-a-vis the marginal communities. At the heart of this history lies the infamous ‘Sugar Lobby’ of Maharashtra. This is the second of a two-part GroundXero coverage on VBA and the Maharashtra battle. You can read the first part here.
The Maharashtra Congress (and it’s later offshoot NCP) is known for its elaborate ‘Jaagirdari’ system designed by Yashwantrao Chavan (YC) – the state’s first Chief Minister. But YC’s design was also meant to settle the ‘Brahman-Maratha power strife’ in the state once and for all.
The ‘Brahman-Maratha dispute’ in Maharashtra dates back to 1741 (with the Peshwa-Bhonsale feud over the Chauth of Bengal, which in turn resulted in the infamous Maratha raids on Bengal). It was under the leadership of YC and S K Patil, that the Marathas eventually established their control over power in the state. The CM’s key instrument for this was the so-called ‘96-clan lobby’ in the state comprising of big land-holding Deshastha Maratha families – an elaborate network of dynasties that controlled the sugar plantations in the state.
The Sugar Lobby
In the 1950s, the Congress was threatened by the newly formed Sanyukta Maharashtra Samiti (SMS) – a movement demanding a separate state for Marathi-speaking peoples, with similar movements erupting in Gujarat, Andhra, and other parts. The SMS was quickly joined by all non-Congress parties in the region. In order to stabilise the ship YC introduced a ‘Mansabdari system’ for cementing Congress rule over the state for decades to come. Each district of western MH (and fertile parts of Marathwada, Khandesh and Vidarbha) was given to a family belonging to the clan network. Each such district was effectively the ‘jaagir’ of the respective family. Nanded was given to another Chavan clan, Satara to YC’s own clan, Sangli to the Patils (erstwhile Congress, now NCP bigwig RR Patil hails from this clan), Latur to the Chakurkars and Deshmukhs (Shivraj Patil-Chakurkar and Vilasrao Deshmukh), Kolhapur to the Desais, Pune-Baramati to the Pawars, and so on. Not unlike the pre-Shivaji Maratha feudal lords, these clans regularly changed party affiliations depending on political pragmatism; they might even fight one-other, but they would never eliminate each other. Ultimately it is the sugar lobby as a network that wins.
After the state of Maharashtra was formed in 1960 with Bombay as its capital, the SMS lost its relevance. Power over the newly formed state went to the sugar lobby headed by YC. The remaining social groups – Dalits, Brahmins, OBCs, and the rejected Maratha clans – were to eventually gravitate towards either Communism or the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena was formed in 1966 under Bal Thackerey, under the protection and patronage of the Congress, specifically then-CM Vasantrao Naik. Many in those times used to refer to it as the ‘Vasant Sena’, while others described it as the ‘Congress’ B Team’. The Sena was a force created to fight the growing communist and militant anti-caste movements in Maharashtra. Their strategy included a series of political murders, including that of Bhagawat Jhadhav (Dalit Panthers leader), Krishna Desai (Communist leader) and Datta Samant (trade union leader).
The rise of Sharad Pawar
Sharad Pawar has arguably been the most powerful politician in the history of the state. “His family is the most powerful sugar lobby family in the state. Sharad Pawar has his influence across the BJP, Congress and the Sena, just like the RSS has its influence across the NCP and the Congress,” said Sumedh Jhadhav, one of the campaigners for the VBA.
Pawar, who had risen in state politics under the mentorship of YC himself, had split from the Congress to form the Purogaami Lokshahi Dal in alliance with Morarji Desai’s Janta Party against Indira Gandhi in 1978. Riding the JP wave, he became Maharashtra’s CM in 1978. But after Indira Gandhi came back to power, she dismissed the Pawar led non-Congress government from Maharashtra, replacing him with AR Antulay, the first person outside of the sugar lobby to become CM of the state.
Skipping ahead, Pawar returned to the Congress in 1987 under Rajeev Gandhi, only after the sugar lobby’s control over the state was re-established under Babasaheb Bhosale. In addition to the sugar lobby, Pawar’s connections with Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim were known to be the chief sources of big money that he required for such political maneuvers. He was briefly the defense minister under the Narasimha Rao Government and as a Maratha strongman, harboured ambitions of being a PM. In 1999, Sharad Pawar, along with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar, formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) after being expelled from the Congress by Sonia Gandhi.
Pawar’s history of flip-flops continued throughout his political career. In 2014, he broke ranks with the Congress once again when his party announced its support for the BJP in Maharashtra where the latter party failed to secure a majority on its own. The NCP’s support in Maharashtra was crucial in that it gave the BJP political hold over the Shiv Sena, since the latter lost their sole bargaining chip now that NCP was ready to ally with the BJP themselves. The NCP even stayed out of the electoral contest in the last Gujarat elections, and ironically were accused by the Congress of thereby helping the BJP win the state.
Namantar and Pawar’s crackdown on Dalits
As a CM, Pawar made no attempts to hide his class interests. His most prominent anti-Dalit action was the way he handled the Namantar movement. Namantar Andolan was a 16-year-long Dalit campaign to rename Marathwada University after B. R. Ambedkar. In 1977, Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vasantdada Patil promised that the renaming would occur, and in July 1978, the Maharashtra Legislature approved it. Based on this, the University Executive Body passed a resolution to rename the university. This sparked organised attacks by the Maratha-Brahman forces on Buddhist Dalits, mainly the Mahars. The attacks spread over around 1,200 villages in Marathwada, impacting around 25,000 Dalits according to estimates, and causing thousands of them to seek safety in jungles in the Aurangabad, Nanded and Parbhani districts of Marathwada. These were also regions where Dalit registrations in schools and colleges were particularly high, and economic competition was the most fierce.
This is relevant in state politics today since these parts of Marathwada are also the fiercest of battlegrounds between the VBA and other parties. Many terrorised Dalits did not return to their villages despite continued starvation. Many were killed, molested, raped. Houses were set on fire, Dalit colonies were looted and they were forced out of villages, their drinking water wells were polluted, their cattle were destroyed, and economic boycotts were imposed on them. These attacks continued for 67 days.
Sharad Pawar had become CM of the state on 18th July 1978, and the attacks on the Dalits in Marathwada began exactly 9 days later, on 27th July. Not only did Pawar not control the attacks, he also sat on the already legislated Namantar resolution. The movement continued.
On 6th December 1979, B. R. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, the Dalit Panthers and several other Dalit organisations took out a ‘Long March’ from Nagpur to Aurangabad, inspired by Mao’s Long March in China. According to some estimates, around 3 lakh people had joined the March and the Jail Bharo protests that followed.
Sharad Pawar’s police cracked down brutally on the protestors. For 16 years following this, the Namantar struggle was fought. The University was finally renamed in January 1994, but not before Pawar had successfully co-opted Ramdas Athawale – an erstwhile Dalit Panther member and one of the leaders of the Namantar Movement – as his cabinet minister for Social Welfare from 1990-96. This was Pawar’s second stint as CM of the state. Athawale has since then emerged as the main leader of Hinduised Dalits in the state, and is now in alliance with the BJP.
During this time, Pawar maintained influence over large parts of the Republican Party (which Athawale and other Panther leaders like Dhasal had joined by now, after the Panthers were disbanded). He was known to be instrumental in deciding the power-sharing between factions supporting Dhasal, Athawale, and other leaders of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers.
Pawar’s crackdown on Muslim families
When it comes to the minority population in the state, specifically Muslims, Sharad Pawar’s track record as a CM is just as vindictive. He was the CM of Maharashtra before and after the 1992-93 riots. While Pawar has lately been blaming Hindutva groups for terrorist activities targeted at Muslims, for instance in Malegaon, he forgets to mention his own alleged involvement in the Mumbai blasts of 1993 that were planned by Dawood Ibrahim. Pawar was known to have financial links with Dawood.
Prakash Ambedkar himself recently alleged that although Dawood Ibrahim wanted to surrender, Pawar ensured that he would not be brought to India. According to Ambedkar, senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani had informed Pawar about Dawood’s willingness to surrender. However, Pawar did not inform the Prime Minister about it. Pawar has been held responsible by many for shielding Dawood. Some have even hinted at his involvement in the planning of the blasts and subsequent crackdown on Muslims in the state.
VBA’s distancing from Pawar
All the turbulence of the early 90s caused the Sena-BJP to come to power in the state in 1995. The Sena-BJP was essentially a Brahman and landed OBC-led political force, meant as a challenge to the Congress-crafted tradition of Maratha domination in the state’s politics. But any such ‘challenge’ had to be of a superficial nature since the economic interests of all these classes were intricately intertwined by now. In 1999, the state and general elections happened simultaneously in Maharashtra; people simultaneously chose Sena-BJP for the Lok Sabha, but Congress-NCP for the State Assembly.
For Bahujan leaders in the state like Prakash Ambedkar, who has worked closely with Pawar at one point and has seen his political apparatus from close quarters, it is difficult to align with the Congress-NCP. Many have lauded Ambedkar’s decision to stay away from the Congress-NCP alliance.
According to some, however, Ambedkar has at the same time failed to build a political discourse around the history of the sugar lobby and its control over the political and economic lives of the working class in Maharashtra – specifically the farmers, who have been committing suicides in the tens of thousands over the past 3 decades in the state. While the dominant caste composition and clan rule of the NCP-Congress-BJP-Sena have been critiqued by the VBA, not enough has been said or planned around the question of big agrarian capital’s tight grip over the region.
This Year’s Elections As Opposed to the Earlier Ones
Elections in Maharashtra are not won by the Congress-NCP or the Sena-BJP. They are won by the sugar-lobby, in one form or the other. The large network of cooperative banks, societies, factories and farms spread across villages of Maharashtra is the real strength of this lobby. Case in point: when sugar baron Atul Bhosale, a former Congressman, crossed over to the BJP in 2014, he was immediately given a ticket from his turf in South Karad. In 1998, Mr. Bhosale’s father, the powerful Jaywantrao Bhosale, had shifted loyalties to the Shiv Sena in his struggle to gain control of the Krishna Cooperative Sugar Factory in Karad.
The Congress-engineered clan control over this sugar network, and therefore over the state politics, remains as operational today. Sachin Mali, in an open letter addressed to the critics of the VBA, claims “169 families” run the nation’s political system. According to an Indian Express report, as many as 38% of all the candidates put up by the 4 major parties in Maharashtra, “have a father, uncle, husband or father-in-law who has served either as an MLA or MP and were instrumental in launching the political careers of these candidates.” Though Congress has been the favourite punching bag for people on the question of dynastic politics, it is clearly not the only party that operates through dynasties. The highest number of hereditary politicians in the Maharashtra fray this time are in the NCP. Of the 22 candidates put up by the party, 12 are hereditary politicians. 9 out of the 23 BJP candidates in the state come from political dynasties. 7 of the Shiv Sena’s 23 candidates are dynasts. Ironically, Sharad Pawar had gained a lot of sympathy in the state while forming the NCP because of his projected anti-dynasty stance.
This year’s election build-up has made it clear that these ruling class families, across the political spectrum, have no way of dealing with the growing socio-economic movements across the country – be it movements such as Bhima Koregaon, or the larger anti-caste struggle, or the farmers’ and workers’ struggles, or struggles for gender equality. When calls were given from the Elgar Parishad platform to destroy the “neo Peshwai”, the term was a direct reference to the Brahman-Maratha dynastic forces that have controlled the state’s politics throughout history – at the cost of lives, dignity and economic well-being of millions of socially and economically precarious people across the region. Having tried every existing political formation over the decades, certain social movements seem to have decided to put up their own candidates this time, outside of the major political parties and the ruling dynasties. VBA is an example of this new unfolding reality.
According to some observers, the VBA has however failed to build up or contribute to the discourse around farmer suicides or the agrarian crisis overall. It has also remained largely silent about the draconian UAPA under which some of Prakash Ambedkar’s colleagues from the Elgar Parishad, and other activists, lawyers, workers, writers, and many Dalit protesters from across the state have been imprisoned by the Government, post Bhima Koregaon. Recently in fact Ambedkar was seen as towing the same populist line as other mainstream parties, on the issue of Pulwama. “We have lost 40 soldiers (in Pulwama), but still sitting quiet. We have been asked not to speak on the Pulwama attack. How can the EC gag us? Our Constitution has given us the right to speak. I am not the BJP. If voted to power, we will jail the Election Commission for two days,” he reportedly said. It is striking that in spite of the long list of serious allegations against the EC for allowing blatant violations of the Code of Conduct by the BJP (and others), Ambedkar decides to pull up the Commission specifically on this particular issue – indicating that the EC should have allowed Pulwama as an electoral plank.
Some have also criticised the movement for drawing upon the ‘blood connection’ between Prakash Ambedkar and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in order to mobilize people. Concerns have also been raised about the movement becoming centered on one key leader and his family [both Ambedkar’s wife and son are actively managing the VBA campaign]. “If we fail this time, it will push back the anti-caste political agenda in this state by at least the next 50 years to come. Last time we failed with Ramdas Athawale and it has cost us all these decades to recover and regroup. This time we can not let that history repeat again, and the only way to ensure that is to build up the movement from the bottom, to strengthen the organisation at the grassroots level in the years to come,” said one VBA supporter. There are also apprehensions of violent backlash against Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim communities in rural Maharashtra post-elections, if the voting trends indicate growth in the popularity of VBA’s candidates.
Almost everyone however agrees that if the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi manages to get a few seats, or emerge as key opposition in terms of vote share across a significant part of the state, it could open up new opportunities for an autonomous Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim political movement in the state, in resistance to the extremely powerful Hindutva-organised politics. “The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party and BJP-Shiv Sena have constructed a limited narrative of politics, with both continually undermining the representation of marginal castes, Muslims and Dalits. An alternative Third Front could infuse newness beyond the Hindu-civility of the BJP and the elite-secularism of Congress,” wrote Prof. Suryakant Waghmare in his recent piece on The Scroll.