INDIA bloc’s Vanchit dilemma in Maharashtra

Can Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, and Prakash Ambedkar bridge the gap to fight Modi in Maharashtra?

Published : Feb 26, 2024 18:29 IST - 9 MINS READ

Prakash Yeshwant Ambedkar during the protest against CAA in Bengaluru in 2020. Ambedkar has emerged as the strongest leader of Dalits in Maharashtra. 

Prakash Yeshwant Ambedkar during the protest against CAA in Bengaluru in 2020. Ambedkar has emerged as the strongest leader of Dalits in Maharashtra.  | Photo Credit: SAMPATH KUMAR GP

On February 3, 2024, a citizens’ collective in Maharashtra issued a public statement appealing to all opposition parties to unite and defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. The group demanded they “finish the seat-sharing talks within a set deadline, following a process that considers the winnability of the candidate, while also compromising on wider representation of all sections of society”.

The statement was posted a day after the first meeting between Ambedkar, the grandson of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and leaders of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Mumbai on February 2. Ambedkar heads Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, a significant force in the State’s politics, but the initial meeting was not about seat-sharing. “The INDIA bloc is not happening in Bengal. It is almost breaking in Uttar Pradesh. So we are cautious about Maharashtra, and I have advised against letting the MVA situation become like INDIA,” Ambedkar said after the meeting. Ambedkar instead suggested a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) for the alliance. Later, he sent a note of 39 points to the MVA leaders that addressed socio-ideological issues and aimed to finalise a Common Minimum Programme before discussing any seat-sharing arrangement.

Formidable force

Ambedkar and his Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) party wield significant power in Maharashtra. The 69-year-old leader, with a career spanning four decades and a strong political background, has created a space that cannot be ignored. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Ambedkar formed an alliance with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and together they secured 7.65 per cent of the votes, which proved decisive in eight seats. However, the alliance won only one seat, Aurangabad, where AIMIM’s Imtiyaz Jaleel emerged victorious. Ambedkar himself lost in the Solapur constituency, finishing third. However, his candidacy significantly impacted the Congress’ Sushilkumar Shinde, who came second against the BJP candidate. Combining Shinde’s and Ambedkar’s votes could have easily surpassed the BJP’s total. The vote division helped the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in both the general and Assembly elections in 2019.

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Since 2019, Maharashtra’s political landscape has undergone significant changes. First, Uddhav Thackeray and his Shiv Sena party parted ways with the BJP to form a government with the Congress and NCP as the MVA. Later, both Shiv Sena and NCP broke up internally, with sizeable factions from both parties straying to the BJP, allowing it to form the government again. Leading up to the Lok Sabha election, the Maharashtra Congress is again experiencing fractures, with leaders like former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan defecting to the BJP. 

Against this backdrop, there is a belief that Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, despite the setbacks, still command sympathy in the State. However, this sympathy may translate into votes only in the Assembly election, as voters may still view Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the strong option for the general election. It is in this context that a broad alliance assumes importance. 

“The alliance with Ambedkar is crucial for the MVA because only a strong alliance can counter Modi’s present appeal,” said Jaydeo Dole, a political observer. “An alliance solely comprising Thackeray, Pawar, and the Congress will have limitations in convincing voters from all corners. However, with Ambedkar onboard, the INDIA alliance’s narrative of ‘saving the Constitution’ will gain strong momentum.” 

Ambedkar formed the VBA in 2018, after previously leading the Bharatiya Republican Paksha Bahujan Mahasangh, formed in 1994. He first became a Rajya Sabha member in 1990 and subsequently won Lok Sabha elections twice, in 1998 and 1999, from the Akola constituency in Vidarbha. In 1998, he was part of the Republican Aikya (Republican Unity), where four Republican parties of Maharashtra formed an alliance among themselves and with the Congress. This alliance secured 38 of 48 Lok Sabha seats, a performance that secular parties have not been able to replicate since. These results demonstrated that a strong alliance between the Congress and smaller Republican parties in Maharashtra can guarantee victory.

The State’s social structure supports this political reality, say observers. According to the 2011 census, Maharashtra has 11.8 per cent Dalit votes. And, despite many claimants, Ambedkar has emerged as the strongest leader of Dalits in Maharashtra. While others such as Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, have aligned with the BJP, Ambedkar has not joined the saffron bandwagon. Incidents of Dalit atrocities, such as the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a student from Hyderabad, or the beating of Dalit youths in Una in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, reportedly led Ambedkar to take a firm anti-BJP, anti-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stance. This has significantly contributed to his growth.

The violence in Koregaon Bhima on January 1, 2018, cemented Ambedkar’s position as the undisputed leader of Maharashtra’s Dalit communities. He took a strong stand and called for a Maharashtra bandh. In March 2018, he announced the formation of the VBA, capitalising on the strong Dalit political upsurge. By naming it Vanchit, which means deprived, Ambedkar aimed to reach out to other communities such as the smaller OBC groups, scheduled tribes, and Muslims. As of now, he has succeeded in consolidating a significant chunk of Dalit votes. To prevent the division of secular and progressive votes, including Ambedkar in the INDIA bloc is a crucial step for the opposition in Maharashtra.

Why is the alliance not yet sealed?

Despite the clear necessity for Ambedkar’s inclusion, talks have not progressed beyond the preliminary stages. Several reasons account for this, the primary one being the “distrust” between the two sides. Past incidents, such as Ambedkar’s previous refusal to align with Congress-NCP, contribute to it. In 2019, during talks between Ambedkar’s party and the Congress-NCP, demands for specific Lok Sabha seats, including Nanded and Baramati, held by sitting MPs Ashok Chavan and Supriya Sule, respectively, created discord. Ambedkar later denied this, but the alliance could not materialise due to the atmosphere of suspicion. 

Seen as the strongest face for Dalits in Maharashtra, Ambedkar is a crucial figure to include in the INDIA bloc ahead of the general election.

Seen as the strongest face for Dalits in Maharashtra, Ambedkar is a crucial figure to include in the INDIA bloc ahead of the general election. | Photo Credit: ANI

Recent incidents have further strained relations, despite ongoing talks. For instance, in mid-January, when MVA leaders announced the inclusion of the VBA, Ambedkar promptly denied it. When MVA leaders extended a public invitation to Ambedkar to join the alliance meeting, questions were raised about the authority of the inviter, Nana Patole. Subsequently, Ramesh Chennithala, the Maharashtra Congress in-charge, personally reached out to Ambedkar, leading to the February 2 meeting. But Ambedkar has confirmed an alliance with Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar’s parties. While initially perceived as being aimed at Mumbai city’s local elections, which are yet to take place, Ambedkar clarified there is no formal alliance with the Congress yet. Following the February 2 meeting, Ambedkar told the media, “I have not yet decided to join hands with MVA leaders. Talks with the Congress are ongoing. We still have to speak with their national president Mallikarjun Kharge.” Some interpret his statement as an assertion of political legacy and a demand for equal respect from alliance partners. 

There is a longstanding history of electoral competition between Ambedkarites and the Congress in Maharashtra. Despite Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s initial alliance with the Congress, political conflict has persisted between the two parties. Since the 1952 general election, when Babasaheb lost to the Congress’s Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar, staunch Ambedkar followers have viewed the Congress as a prime competitor, if not an outright opponent. Therefore, Ambedkar believes discussions should be held with the Congress “high command” rather than State leaders.

Conversely, the Congress is wary of Ambedkar’s intentions, fearing he may backtrack at the last minute and shift the blame on the Congress. As a precaution, the Congress is quietly devising a Plan B, using Kharge, a Dalit from the border city of Bidar in Karnataka, who speaks Marathi fluently. If Ambedkar withdraws from the MVA at the eleventh hour, the Congress will project Kharge as the Dalit face in Maharashtra. Efforts in this direction are already underway, as seen by the Congress’s mega rally in Nagpur, Vidarbha, on December 28, where Kharge addressed the crowd in Marathi. Also, the Congress strategically fielded Chandrakant Handore, a Dalit leader from Mumbai, as its candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections, which is aimed to attract Dalit votes. 

Seat sharing 

Both the MVA and the VBA have reiterated that discussions on the number of seats have not yet begun. However, Sujat Ambedkar, a prominent face of the party and the son of Ambedkar, posted a formula on social media platform X: “12 + 12 + 12 + 12.” This suggests allocating 12 seats each to the Congress, the NCP (Sharad Pawar), the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), and the VBA. 

Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut with Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar and others during the Maharashtra Development Alliance meeting, in Mumbai on Feb. 2, 2024.

Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut with Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar and others during the Maharashtra Development Alliance meeting, in Mumbai on Feb. 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Ambedkar publicly offered Thackeray an alternative: if the Congress did not accommodate him, both Thackeray and Ambedkar would contest the elections in alliance, with 24 seats each. With the NCP, his proposed formula is 16 seats each. Ambedkar consistently demands an equal number of seats in any alliance formation, but publicly, he emphasises finalising the Common Minimum Programme first, with seat-sharing discussions afterwards. 

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Meanwhile, Uddhav Thackeray has reportedly requested Ambedkar to provide a list of desired Lok Sabha seats. Sources close to Thackeray revealed that Ambedkar has not provided a list, instead asking the MVA to specify what they can offer. The MVA’s internal seat sharing is nearly finalised, with the Congress, the NCP (Sharad Pawar), and the Shiv Sena agreeing on 40 of the State’s 48 seats. The remaining eight seats will be resolved before the model code of conduct. Accommodating Ambedkar’s demand for an equal seat share poses the toughest challenge for the MVA. A highly placed source from the NCP (Sharad Pawar) disclosed that the MVA can offer Ambedkar six seats, all of which are potentially winning seats. Also, there are options to accommodate Ambedkar in the Rajya Sabha, State Assembly, and Council seats. However, as of now, no significant progress has been made in those discussions. 

Social pressure

At the same time, there is social pressure from the ground for an MVA-VBA alliance, especially from civil society organisations that are campaigning for the ouster of BJP from the Centre. Various fronts such as Bharat Jodo Abhiyan (comprising mainly socialist activists), Nirbhay Bano (Stay Fearless), and Navi Umed-Nava Paryay (New Hope, New Option), among others, have begun grassroots campaigns against the BJP. The success of their mass mobilisation depends heavily on the formation of a strong opposition alliance. Therefore, these organisations are exerting pressure on MVA partners and the VBA to form an alliance. Bharat Jodo Abhiyan’s State working committee has engaged with senior leaders such as Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Balasaheb Thorat, and Nana Patole of the Congress to push for an alliance with the VBA. Similarly, over 70 Dalit organisations recently convened in Nashik to discuss the way forward, with unanimous agreement on the need for an alliance between the MVA and the VBA. 

“We believe that 2024 is not just a battle for one Lok Sabha seat. It is a battle to safeguard democracy in India,” said Sanjay MG, a social activist and member of Bharat Jodo Abhiyan. “Our freedom fighters fought against the British to secure our independence. The question now is whether we will succeed in preserving that independence in 2024. That’s why we appeal to all like-minded forces to come together. We hope that the VBA and the MVA in Maharashtra will understand this urgency.” 

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