In the history of recent political negotiations, it’s hard to recall the last time Congress leaders in Maharashtra visited a state Dalit leader’s house for alliance discussions, indicating the latter’s irrelevance in the larger scheme of Assembly or Parliament polls. This changed on January 29 when the Congress top brass led by state chief Ashok Chavan and NCP leader Chagan Bhujbal called on Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Ambedkar. They visited him at “Rajgruha”, his home in Mumbai which was once home to Dr Ambedkar.
The Congress not only offered an olive branch to Ambedkar and his newly formed front—the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA)—but also acknowledged his growing political clout in the wake of his rallies across the state. With reports about Rahul Gandhi contesting from Nanded constituency in the state, the visit assumes even greater significance.
Prakash Ambedkar rebranded his politics as Vanchit Bahujan (or the neglected) from its earlier avatar of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM). Since the formation of the VBA in May 2018, he has toured the state talking about neglected communities. The social groups he’s targeting are what he calls the 50-60 per cent of the population which has been left out of the mainstream by all the major parties in the state. The key constituents of his alliance are not just Scheduled Castes but other neglected communities—namely Dhangar (who form 10 per cent of the population), Mali and other excluded nomadic tribes (VJNT).
The ‘Kinwat pattern’
It was an insignificant by-poll in 1993 to the Kinwat Assembly seat in Nanded district which set the stage for Prakash Ambedkar’s Bahujan politics. This was during a phase of total dominance of Congress party in the state, but the by-election results shocked everyone. A lesser-known tribal candidate—Bhimrao Keram of Ambedkar’s BBM—defeated the Congress. The results were called the “Kinwat pattern”—implying that if OBCs, SCs and STs unite, the Congress could be defeated in the state. The BBM had been working on creating a broader social coalition, on the lines of what BSP leader Kanshiram was successfully doing in North India.
But much to the Congress’s relief, the Kinwat pattern did not last long. Bhimrao Keram lost the 1995 elections. Subsequently, the BBM’s founder-leaders Makhram Pawar and writer Arjun Dangle left Ambedkar’s coalition.
Yet Prakash Ambedkar was undeterred. He remained largely independent and managed to hold on to his base in Akola, Washim and Buldhana districts in Vidharba, and achieved success in the Municipal Council, Zilla Parishad and local body elections. In the 2014 Assembly elections, although the BBM won only one seat, it remained the runner-up in three other seats. The BBM’s lone MLA belongs to the OBC Mali caste.
The Kinwat pattern that started in 1993 was later known as the “Akola pattern”. However, Ambedkar failed to win his seat from Akola after 1999 in the Lok Sabha polls.
But regardless of electoral success, Ambedkar’s clout grew as other Dalit leaders like Ramdas Athawale, Jogendra Kawade and RG Gawai became either irrelevant or subservient to big parties. The demolition of the heritage building, Ambedkar Bhawan, by the BJP government and the Bhima Koregaon attack on Dalits made him the undisputed Dalit leader of the state. But Ambedkar wants to lead the Vanchit Bahujan coalition, not just Dalit leadership.
Bhima Koregaon and Ambedkar’s rise
In the last two years, Prakash Ambedkar has revived the Kinwat pattern. Since the arrest of Dalit activists after the January 1, 2017, violence in Bhima Koregaon, he took centre stage. He held Manohar Bhide of the Shivpratishtan and Milind Ekbote of the Hindu Ekta Manch responsible for the planned attacks and demanded their arrests. While Ekbote was briefly arrested and released, Bhide was not even questioned.
Ambedkar was able to gather thousands in the heart of Mumbai to demand the arrests of Bhide and Ekbote. But on each occasion, he spoke not just about Dalits but the larger deprived sections that he called Vanchit—the OBCs and tribals.
Laxman Mane, nomadic tribal scholar and Padma Shri winner, was made convener of the VBA. This is significant as Republican Party of India factions have often been accused of not looking beyond the Mahar community and hence achieved little success in electoral mathematics.
The protests against the Bhima Koregaon violence helped Ambedkar revive his “Kinwat” or “Akola” pattern with even more rigour. Crowds swelled in his rallies. Rallies were also held for the Vanchit community which has been demanding reservations under the ST category for a long time. Similar rallies were held for SC/ST communities as well.
Ambedkar also received yet another boost last September with the announcement of an alliance with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi. Both the AIMIM and the VBA had extremely limited success in the 2014 Assembly polls. The AIMIM received 4.8 lakh votes and won two seats, while Ambedkar’s coalition scored 4.7 lakh votes and won one seat. Yet the AIMIM has a history of ruffling the feathers of high-profile candidates. For example, during the Solapur city central assembly elections in 2014, Praniti Shinde—daughter of Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde—narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of the AIMIM’s Shekh Taufik Ismail, who came a close second while reducing her 2009 victory margin.
So this AIMIM-VBA alliance and the socio-political scenario since 2014 has made the VBA a force to reckon with. This is precisely why Congress leaders came to Prakash Ambedkar’s doorstep.
Bones of contention for Congress alliance
Earlier, the Congress publicly asked Ambedkar to drop the AIMIM from his alliance as a precondition for their talks with him. While Ambedkar maintained that he will not leave the AIMIM, Owaisi dropped a bombshell at a Nanded rally on January 18 when he announced he was willing to step aside if the Congress gave his “elder brother” Ambedkar seats “as per his stature”. He said: “If you do so then I don’t want a single seat.”
Ambedkar has demanded 12 seats for his front from the Congress—double of what the Congress was willing to offer. They’re also the 12 seats that the Congress has lost consistently in the last two to three elections. Yet the bigger bone of contention is Ambedkar’s demand that the Congress-NCP puts together a “proposal of action” against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Ambedkar threatened to contest in all 48 Lok Sabha seats if the Congress doesn’t comply. The Congress has been non-committal thus far.
Ambedkar has established himself not only as a strong potential force of the Vanchit Bahujans, but also as a tough negotiator. He regularly appears live on his Facebook page and has been active on Twitter since 2015. He’s known to frequently meet and interact with the public and has built a network of youngsters to promote his rallies and speeches on social media—most of them work free of cost. Catchy slogans like “No NDA, no UPA, only VBA” have already gained popularity on Marathi social media.
With the VBA garnering the OBC, SC, ST, VJNT and now the Muslim communities, it’s bound to hit big parties like the Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena, BJP and even the BSP. Given this, Prakash Ambedkar is all set to become the surprise package during the Maharashtra Lok Sabha elections.
Prakash Ambedkar Photo Credit: Akash Gulsundare