Can the INDIA front afford to take Prakash Ambedkar lightly?
The VBA and Prakash Ambedkar himself have had a tough relationship with the Congress and the NCP.
As the INDIA front gathers in Mumbai on Thursday for its third meeting after Patna and Bengaluru, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), led by Prakash Ambedkar, has alleged that it has still not been given an invite to the meeting, let alone a seat at the table. While INDIA seems to be getting more comfortable about its alliance arithmetic each day, can it be casual about the VBA in Maharashtra? To answer that, one just has to look at the 2019 General Election data for Maharashtra.
The rise of Vanchit
While the name Babasaheb Ambedkar itself is an unavoidable mention in India’s politics, where every party of each colour tries to woo the Dalit voter, the Republican party started by the Doctor himself has not remained a force to reckon with anymore. Its rampant factionalism and leadership woes had long created a space for someone like Prakash Ambedkar, who not only possesses the haloed surname, but the wit and charisma to channel the massive political aspirations of the dalits and working classes.
While he has been the President of the BhaRiPa Bahujan Mahasangh for a long time, Ambedkar came unto his own after the Bhima Koregaon incident in January 2018. He was the pivotal force to rise out of that trauma, turning the massive anger in the oppressed communities regarding the incident into a very successful call of Bharat Bandh, which was effective especially in Maharashtra. Ambedkar had risen as an Ambedkarite leader with ferocity, clarity and his spotless career made no lesser addition to it.
He began a massive mobilisation, turning his attention from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes alone and steered it towards a larger ‘Vanchit’ politics. Vanchit, in Marathi, means the deprived. These deprived could be found in the Dhangars demanding reservations, OBCs, NTs, VJNTs and even the lower rungs of Marathas, who have been left behind by their rich and powerful brethren. Consolidating the impact of this term, Ambedkar then floated the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. The VBA also entered into an alliance with Assadudin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
What happened in 2019?
To everyone’s awe, shock and surprise, the VBA+AIMIM alliance decided to contest all the 48 Lok Sabha seats that the state has to offer. Of which they could win just 1 seat, and which was contested by the AIMIM. But the most important factor was the voluminous vote share that the alliance garnered. The Vanchit alliance took 41,32,446 votes, which are almost 7.1 percent of the total votes. For a newly formed political outfit to poll those kinds of numbers is a feat in itself.
Even if one considers the impact of the AIMIM, the VBA on its own took home almost 37,43,560 votes home, making the AIMIM’s break from the alliance in late 2019 look like a small dent at most.
What is further a major tale of caution, for the Congress-NCP-Sena in Maharashtra and the INDIA front at large, is the number of seats the VBA candidates polled in the top 3. Of the 48 Lok Sabha seats, the VBA polled in the top 3 in no less than 39 seats!
And even if that fails to convince one on the impact of the VBA on the seats of the anti-BJP parties, one can go ahead and take a look at the number of seats where the VBA was ‘THE’ crucial factor. There are almost nine seats where the VBA candidate took away the amount of votes that were almost same or much more than the difference between the winning and runner-up candidates.
Here is a list to consider:
Even though this is a very crude and basic calculation, one can see that the VBA held the potential to transfer a sizeable amount of votes to the runner up anti-BJP candidates, though there is no assurance the voters would have acted the same way. The arithmetic simply explores the realm of possibilities where rather than causing a split of votes, the VBA would have actually increased at least a few Lok Sabha seats for the INDIA in Maharashtra.
Even in the State Assembly Elections that followed, fighting 234 seats on its own, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi garnered almost 24 lakh votes, which is almost 4 percent of the total votes polled. The 2019 Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha elections ended up in a quasi-triangular situation, where the Sena-BJP alliance came down to 161 seats and the Congress-NCP alliance rose to 102. The VBA in crude terms ‘damaged’ the Congress-NCP in no less than 25 seats!
Seeing the fiasco that has followed ever since, the importance of those 25 seats is highlighted even further.
Is INDIA listening?
The VBA and Prakash Ambedkar himself have had a tough relationship with the Congress and the NCP. While at times having garnered the support of the Congress, He has always been at loggerheads with Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party supremo and has been one of the most vocal critics of his policies.
Though not spoken of as a major electoral force before, Ambedkar has been an active leader for decades. He has led several successful agrarian and social protests and has even served as a Member of Parliament thrice. His appeal, though having obvious support from the Dalits, is not limited to it and extends over a large OBC, ST, NT and VJNT population in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Telangana and to some extent, Karnataka.
His impact and striking power proven, Ambedkar, on several occasions, has offered to sit across on negotiation tables with the Congress-NCP which have been joined by the Shivsena since. The entry of the Shivsena in the formula completely changed the picture as the arithmetic would be more than just self-sustaining on its own, but with time we have seen the Shivsena split, followed by the NCP.
This again creates a scenario, where Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi might play a crucial role in the dynamics. Thought the INDIA alliance seems like an infallible arrangement, we have seen the failure of such coalitions in the past. In terms of the the 2024 general elections, the INDIA alliance will not only need to identify and include crucial partners, but their local leaders will also have to form a respectful camaraderie with them.
Prakash Ambedkar himself and various organs of his party have shown interest in joining the INDIA platform. They have also formed an alliance with the Shiv Sena - Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (UBT), which is now a part of INDIA. Yet Ambedkar has alleged on several occasions that there has been no offer or invitation from the Umbrella.
As the INDIA quilt assembles in Mumbai again on Thursday and Friday, one may then ask, what could be the possible reasons for the cold shoulder? The Congress, the NCP have criticised the VBA several times for being a ‘vote cutter’ or ‘B-Team’ of the BJP. But they cannot undermine the VBAs right to contest elections just because it damages their prospects. The VBA has not ‘stolen’ something that someone ‘owned’, but rather consolidated by showing creative aggression in favour of the ignored and the denied.
The INDIA front needs to clarify its position on this issue at the soonest. Whatever their reasons be, they should present them before the people. They should stop imagining that they could ignore or wish away the VBA. The Vanchits, the deprived, have spoken through their votes and by denying Vanchit a seat at the table again, the INDIA Achilles will just poke an unnecessary arrow unto its own heel.