Their grandfathers worked closely together in the 1950s against untouchability and upper caste atrocities against the lower castes. The old bonhomie was evident when the grandsons of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Prabodhankar Thackeray met this week at the launch of a website dedicated to Uddhav Thackeray’s grandfather.
What might have been a routine function ended up electrifying political circles in Maharashtra as Uddhav Thackeray, who had invited Prakash Ambedkar to the function, publicly invited the latter to join hands with him. Ambedkar, who heads the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), responded by saying that it was certainly time for likeminded parties to come together to fight against dictatorship.
Is this another turning point in the state? While the dynamics and details of the alliance are still being worked out, analysts agree that the alliance is a huge setback for the BJP because the VBA’s appeal extends not only to Dalits but also to the OBCs.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when VBA teamed up with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, VBA candidates polled over 100,000 votes in 8 to 10 seats, which led to the defeat of Congress-NCP candidates and helped BJP win. Ambedkar himself contested from two seats, his traditional ones of Akola and Solapur, where BJP wanted to ensure the defeat of former Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. Ambedkar lost both seats, as did the Congress.
The only time Ambedkar did win a seat was in 1998 (from Akola) in alliance with the Congress, when Sharad Pawar persuaded upper caste voters in this general constituency to vote for a Dalit—usually it is easier the other way round.
In the Maharashtra assembly election that followed, and which the VBA fought alone, once again VBA candidates polled a substantial number of votes in around 30 seats, helping the BJP to win.
It is still not clear whether the VBA will remain an ally of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav) or be accepted into the MVA (Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi) alliance of SS(U)-Congress-NCP. The VBA appears keen to join the MVA and Prakash Ambedkar indicated that the ball was in Uddhav Thackeray’s court to work out the modalities. Nor is it certain whether the alliance between the VBA and SS(U) will last till the BMC elections in 2023, or the 2024 general election. In either case, it is the BJP that stands to lose.
While Prakash Ambedkar won an election only once since he began dabbling in politics in the mid 1980s, his name remains a huge draw among Dalits in Vidarbha and Marathwada. The Ambedkarite population in Vidarbha is a significant 21-22 per cent of the votes in a region which accounts for 62 of the 288 seats in the Maharashtra assembly. Marathwada has 46 seats and the population there is equally divided between Marathas, Dalits and Muslims. With Asaduddin Owaisi acting as a spoiler for the Congress-NCP in the region, observers believe an alliance with Ambedkar will be useful for the MVA. His ability to draw votes and his ability to transfer his votes to allies, they say, is what makes him valuable.
While Uddhav Thackeray, they point out, has no incentive to break his alliance with the Congress and the NCP, the latter may have reservations about accepting Ambedkar into the MVA. But neither the Congress nor the NCP should have a problem if Ambedkar aligns with SS(U).
Like Ambedkar, Uddhav Thackeray is fighting an existential crisis of his own—he has already tied up with Maratha Mahasangh and Sambhaji Brigade, both ideologically right wing. Now Ambedkar, who was the Communist Party’s preferred candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2017, brings both left and Dalits votes to the SS(U).
Seat distribution before elections might prove troublesome for SS(U) with so many allies on board. While none of these allies can win independently, SS(UBT) might not mind reducing the number of seats it would have contested otherwise. It should, therefore, be a win-win situation for both.
Unlike 13 other factions of the Republican Party of India, each of which claims to represent the Dalits, in Prakash Ambedkar’s worldview, society simply comprises the exploiters and the exploited. He has made it clear that he represents the poor and the exploited, and victory or defeat in elections does not matter much to him—one of the many reasons why political parties are wary of him.
In the 2019 general election, the Congress was apparently keen to forge an alliance with VBA. But Prakash Ambedkar apparently wanted to contest in 24 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Those who know him say that he can be unreasonable and rigid. The sheer unpredictability of the man, they say, makes him a political liability for mainstream parties, whom he counts among the exploiters.
Then there are those who accuse him of splitting opposition votes in 2019 by allegedly accepting funds ‘indirectly’ from the BJP to put up his candidates as ‘spoilers’ to ensure the defeat of Congress-NCP candidates.
Dhanraj Vanjari, a former police officer who served as vice-president of the VBA, dismisses Ambedkar as a ‘leader-trader’. Like Raj Thackeray, he works for the benefit of the ‘highest bidder’ but never gets anything of his own, says Vanjari. He draws parallels with Raj Thackeray, whose galvanising anti-Modi campaign in the run up to the 2019 election was said to have been promoted by the NCP. Now estranged from Ambedkar, Vanjari had contested on a VBA ticket from Wardha and lost.
But while Raj Thackeray failed to shift votes to the Congress-NCP combine, Ambedkar was far more successful in drawing anti-BJP votes. Vanjari, however, dismisses Ambedkar as a loser whose importance to the electorate is on a sharp decline. He claims that Ambedkar had actually sought a formal alliance with the BJP as well, but was rebuffed. He also claims that Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde called on Ambedkar, who, he says, decided on Uddhav Thackeray as a better bet.
The BJP was disinterested in an alliance with Ambedkar, apparently because of Amit Shah’s stated policy that it is not worth the effort to have an alliance with parties which cannot win at least five seats on their own. In addition, BJP does have a Republican Party ally in Ramdas Athawale, who is a Rajya Sabha MP and a rabble-rouser in Maharashtra. But like Prakash Ambedkar, even he cannot win any seat on his own. The last time he won a Lok Sabha seat was in 2004, once again courtesy Sharad Pawar.
Prabodhankar Thackeray, Uddhav’s grandfather, was a socialist and supported Dr B.R. Ambedkar in his fight against caste hierarchy and untouchability; but his father, Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, had violently opposed publication of the collected works of Dr Ambedkar during his centenary celebrations in the 1980s.
One of the volumes had a chapter titled, ‘Riddles of Hinduism’ in which Dr Ambedkar had questioned the number of human frailties in Lord Ram and Lord Krishna that the epics recorded and which he thought militated against the divine status accorded to them.
Balasaheb Thackeray and Shiv Sainiks took to the streets, smashing cars and shop windows, beating up anybody who resisted. A few days later, all 13 factions of the Republican Party of India brought out a similar morcha that was bigger than the Shiv Sena’s and unleashed violence on a scale that frightened Thackeray into silence on the ‘Riddles of Hinduism’. But he never forgave the Ambedkarites.
Things have now come full circle as the grandsons of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Prabodhankar Thackeray come together to ‘save’ democracy from the BJP. The alliance between the Shiv Sena (Uddhav) and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has also the potential to revive the reformist movements launched by their respective grandfathers.