Prakash Ambedkar and the Future of Dalit Politics in Maharashtra

Prakash Ambedkar’s announcement that the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh will have an electoral alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM is a political development that could have big consequences in the upcoming general election.

In Maharashtra’s politics, there was always a space to build up a strong political alternative to the Congress-led bourgeois-feudal nexus until the arrival of the BJP as its arch rival. However, in the past, Dalit politics have failed in seizing the opportunity due to internal disunity and compromising attitudes.

It’s a popular criticism in the state that most of the Dalit leadership is a powerless alibi of the dominant social elite and has compromised  the ethical-ideological position that Babasaheb Ambedkar had envisaged. It is frequently alleged that the Dalit movement is passive, detached from social realities and remains fragmented.

However, with the re-emergence of Prakash Ambedkar as the flag bearer of independent Dalit politics, there is renewed hope that the depressed Ambedkarites may regain their ideological strength and organisational capacities to become influential players in state politics.

Prakash Ambedkar’s formal announcement that his party, the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), will have an electoral alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) for the upcoming general elections is an important political development. The curiosity about the future of Dalit politics in Maharashtra has increased manifold as this alliance may influence a sizeable vote share and determine the result a in closely contested election.

The BBM-AIMIM alliance appears popular, progressive and radical; however, this development also has a darker side. In the given situation, when the right-wing domination has increased, any breakage in the vote share of the opposition would be helpful to the BJP in winning the elections. The past has showcased that both parties have a sizeable influence in a few constituencies. In the rest of the state, it mainly divides the vote share of the anti-BJP candidates. Therefore, the rationale of the alliance is under a stiff scrutiny.

Also read: Prakash Ambedkar Appears Before Bhima Koregaon Commission, Says Member Should Be Witness

Ambedkar’s BBM, since its inception, has distanced itself from the stereotype that it is a neo-Buddhist/Mahar political front. Instead, the famous ‘Akola Pattern’ was a political strategy that Ambedkar designed to enlarge the acceptance of his party amongst the lower-OBCs and Muslims. The Dalit-Muslim-lower OBC combination was influential in breaking the political hegemony of the Congress in Akola.

Since 1995, the BBM was a dominant party in local politics and elected Prakash Ambedkar twice to parliament. In the 1999 general elections, the party contested 34 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, but only Prakash Ambedkar won from Akola. Since then, the growth of the party has declined considerably and even Ambedkar lost consecutive elections to his BJP rival in Akola.

In the 2014 Assembly Elections, the BBM has contested 70 seats, garnered a meagre vote share of around 1% and was influential only in two or three districts (Akola, Balapur and Akot). However, it remained a powerful social voice of the Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised groups and mobilised the downtrodden sections over the fundamental issues of human rights and social security.

After the murder of public activists – Dabholkar and Punsare – Ambedkar stood as a vociferous critic of the right-wing government and mobilised people against such violent acts. Often it formed social and political alliances with the left-wing parties and engaged with social organisations associated with grassroots-level activisms.

Ambedkar also emerged as a prominent voice of the Dalit student after the ‘institutional murder’ of Rohith Vemula in the Central University of Hyderabad. On the ideological front, the BBM collided with the communists and socialists and even called itself a central-left political outfit.

Ambedkar reemerged as a popular Dalit leader after the Bhima Koregaon incident of caste violence. On December 31, 2017, Ambedkar was one of the participants of the Elgar Parishad in Pune, where major public figures, social activists and intellectuals gathered to launch a firm attack against the right-wing political ideology and the BJP-ruled state.

The next day, when lakhs of people gathered at Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the historic legacy of a battle fought against the Brahmanical Peshwas in 1818, some right-wing miscreants planned a violent attack against the participants and created a riot like situation. Ambedkar announced a statewide protest against the incident and gave a call for ‘Maharshtra Bandh’ the next day. The response to his call was unprecedented, as the state remained shut. Ambedkar provided influential leadership to the Dalit voice and emerged as its independent leader.

Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh leader Prakash Ambedkar addressing a protest gathering at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Credit: Sudharak Olwe

Today, Ambedkar is banking mostly on this new popularity he has gained from his consistent political struggle, civil society activism and social engagement. However, Ambedkar understood that BBM as a political force has no capacity or organisational strength to counter the right-wing hegemony, and therefore he must enter into a political alliance with other parties.

His choice not to form an electoral alliance with the Congress/NCP has not surprised anyone, as he was a firm advocate of ‘third front’ politics and therefore, distancing himself from both was an obvious choice. Interestingly, he chose AIMIM and other smaller political outfits as part of the new political alliance and called it the Vanchit-Bahujan Aghadi.

This experiment looks promising as the AIMIM is equally influential in 10-12 assembly seats.  As a united front, it can tilt the results at least in 10 Lok Sabha seats. However, outside the realm of its influence, there is visible fear that this alliance may work as the ‘B-team’ of the BJP to disturb the unity of opposition voters.

Ambedkar has to face this dilemma and resolve it with political correctness. Today he is a popular and respected leader of the Dalits and has the capacity to provide uncompromising leadership to other marginalised groups, including Muslims.

At the theoretical level, the BBM-AIMIM front looks courageous as it brings the two most marginalised communities together and offers them an independent space to raise their political issues. However, when it comes to electoral battles, there is no guarantee that Dalits and Muslims would trust the new alliance unanimously at this hour of crises.

Today, when the electoral battle against the right-wing enters into its last lap in 2019, the secular and progressive voters will hesitate to shift from the Congress to the BBM-AIMIM alliance just because it has promised them an alternative political agenda.

Dalits and Muslims for a long time had been the staunch supporters of the liberal secular outfits and often showed open allegiance to the Congress. They would trust the Congress-led alliance over the BBM-AIMIM alliance, as the former appears more resourceful, capable and confident to defeat the BJP (especially after the win in Assembly Elections of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh).

Also read: Will Prakash Ambedkar Take the Lead in the Fight for Dalit Rights in Maharashtra?

The BBM-AIMIM alliance has to showcase that it is capable of defeating the right-wing alliance comprehensively. Past experiences suggest that both the parties have an insignificant vote base and only in few Lok Sabha seats it would be influential. Under such conditions, the Dalit-Muslim base may not choose a weak alliance.

Thus, its electoral prospects would be limited only to certain constituencies and may win one or two seats. However, on other seats, because of its radical political voice and emotive rhetoric, it may attract a sizeable Dalit-Muslim vote and thus, jeopardise the possibility of the Congress’s victory.

Prakash Ambedkar has to make a rational political choice in the given context. His ideological commitment towards building an independent Dalit politics and his wish to lead a third front in Maharashtra appears promising, but may be detrimental in the larger battle to defeat the aggressive right-wing juggernaut.

This is the future in which the BBM-AIMIM alliance would cut a sizeable vote and help the Shiv Sena-BJP in long run. Ambedkar has to answer how he will not allow this to happen and must prove his secular credentials. The other choice is to strengthen the Congress-led anti-right-wing political alliance by participating in it. The Congress-NCP also has to acknowledge that both the parties are making important political claims and are crucial for the legitimacy of the secular alliance.

BBM-AIAIM participation in the Congress-led alliance may surely dilute the prospects for launching a third front, however, it will surely save the state and country from the brutal yoke of right-wing oppression and hegemony. This is the dilemma that Prakash Ambedkar and his allies have to overcome in 2019.

Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi.