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Maharashtra: Season of hard bargains

Struggling to secure a deal with Prakash Ambedkar, Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi is reaching out to smaller groups in order to build an anti-BJP narrative.

Published : Mar 18, 2024 15:22 IST - 6 MINS READ

Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut and party members after a Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi meeting with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi regarding seat sharing for the Lok Sabha election, in Mumbai on March 6.

Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut and party members after a Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi meeting with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi regarding seat sharing for the Lok Sabha election, in Mumbai on March 6. | Photo Credit: PTI

Top opposition leaders of Maharashtra whose parties are constituents of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), met Prakash Ambedkar, head of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) party, in Mumbai on March 6 to discuss the possibility of an alliance against the BJP. They included Nationalist Congress Party (NCP-Sharad Chandra Pawar) chief Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray, and Balasaheb Thorat, the Congress Legislature Party leader.

Visuals of the meeting created optimism among supporters of the MVA as well as sympathisers of secular and progressive politics, as several surveys have hinted at a landslide victory for the opposition if the two Aghadis come together. However, nothing has been finalised yet and it is not known whether such a front will actually materialise.

Talks within the MVA on the Lok Sabha election have been going on for nearly 10 months now since the first meeting in May 2023. At that time, the Shiv Sena had already split into the Eknath Shinde and Uddhav Thackeray factions, but the NCP was intact. In the meeting, Uddhav Thackeray proposed joining hands with Ambedkar to defeat the BJP, and the NCP and the Congress agreed. But the plan was derailed when the NCP split into two factions a month later.

Since October 2023, MVA leaders have been holding talks to discuss the possibility of seat sharing between them.

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The VBA was first invited for talks in January this year. In the last week of February, it claimed to have a strong presence in 27 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The VBA reportedly submitted a four-point proposal to the MVA:

First, the Jalna constituency ticket be given to Manoj Jarange-Patil, leader of the Maratha reservation movement, and the Pune seat be allotted to Abhijit Vaidya, a well-known doctor.

Second, 15 of the 39 open seats should be allotted to candidates from the Other Backward Classes. (In Maharashtra, five seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and four for Scheduled Tribes.)

Third, three seats be allotted to religious minorities.

Fourth, the MVA parties should promise in writing that they will not ally with the BJP in any post-election scenario.

However, in the March 6 meeting, while the VBA claimed that no discussion had taken place on its proposals, MVA leaders claimed that talks for an alliance were on the right track.

Prakash Ambedkar’s unease

Prakash Ambedkar’s unease around the Congress and the NCP is not new. He has always believed that joining hands with the Congress and the NCP does not help him, since both parties are dominated by privileged castes who do not vote for Ambedkar’s candidates. However, Dalit votes easily transfer to the Congress. So, to keep his vote bank intact, Ambedkar always drives a hard bargain.

Also Read | Modi’s Mission Maharashtra

On the other hand, Congress leaders also do not trust Ambedkar. They believe that he always takes a stand that divides the secular votes, which directly helps the BJP. In 2019, the VBA wanted to contest the Baramati and Nanded Lok Sabha seats, which had been won by the NCP and the Congress respectively in 2014. This was also a reason why an alliance could not be forged in 2019.

Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar speaking to mediapersons, in Nagpur on March 1. SNEHAL SONTAKKE/ANI

Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar speaking to mediapersons, in Nagpur on March 1. SNEHAL SONTAKKE/ANI | Photo Credit: SNEHAL SONTAKKE/ANI

This time round, there is huge social pressure on both sides to join hands. Some influential leaders, who have worked with Ambedkar in the past, believe his willingness to participate in talks with the MVA is a result of that pressure.

A leader who chose anonymity said: “Prakash Ambedkar does not like the Congress. He feels that going solo will keep his vote bank intact; otherwise the Congress will slowly attract those voters. But this time there is pressure from the community to have an alliance. That’s why he is trying to create a picture that while he is serious about the alliance, the Congress does not want him.”

MVA’s Plan B

Keeping this in mind, MVA leaders have started working on a Plan B. They are sealing deals with smaller parties such as the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWP), the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS), and the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP). There is talk that former MP Raju Shetti of the SSS will be the alliance candidate from Hatkanangale constituency.

The PWP will help the alliance in four seats and is likely to be accommodated later during the Assembly election. Mahadev Jankar of the RSP is a strong force within the Dhangar (shepherd) community, which is influential in nine Lok Sabha and 34 Assembly seats. The MVA has been in talks with Jankar for the past few months. Although the talks are not yet in the public domain, if things go as planned, Jankar will be the alliance candidate from Madha constituency. Jankar’s RSP was in alliance with the BJP but fell out with the party recently following the saffron party’s neglect.

The opposition is also working on two other strategies: getting socially respectable figures to contest the election, and winning the support of small but significant communities and social organisations. The MVA is backing Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, a descendant of Shivaji Maharaj, in Kolhapur. Shahu Maharaj is a highly respected figure for his work among the poor and marginalised communities, farmers, and women. At age 76, he is making his debut in electoral politics as a Congress candidate.

Also Read | Can the two Aghadis join hands in Maharashtra?

His presence is expected to help the MVA in western Maharashtra in particular, as well as among the Maratha and Bahujan communities all over the State. The strategy of bringing small parties and minor but significant communities together under the MVA banner is slowly taking shape across the State. In Vidarbha, Uddhav Thackeray plans to give prominence to the Banjara community leader Sunil Maharaj, who is also chief of the highly influential Poharadevi temple trust. Sunil Maharaj has already started campaigning among the Banjara community.Social organisations too are rallying behind the MVA.

Multiple groups have hit the streets against the BJP. The Maharashtra chapter of Bharat Jodo Abhiyan is an umbrella body of more than a hundred civil society organisations across the State. They are concentrating on 25 Lok Sabha constituencies where social activists and eminent citizens will directly appeal to people to vote for the MVA and defeat the BJP.

With alliances and coordination with like-minded organisations, the focus on narrative building is also something the MVA is working on. The core theme of the narrative is that the BJP is leading an assault on Maharashtra’s finances as well as politics and culture. With many industries having shifted from Mumbai to Gujarat, the MVA is accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of favouring Gujarat over Maharashtra.

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