Why Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi is the only force that can counter Hindutva in Maharashtra

Debunking the false and misleading smear campaign against Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi to provide a more accurate understanding of the factors responsible for the division of secular votes.
Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi
Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi
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The first general elections of 1951-52 saw many political parties enter the battle to become the first ruling party of Independent India. Dr BR Ambedkar entered the race through his Scheduled Caste Federation. This caused immense heartburn to the then-dominant parties and it is well documented in history that the Congress party and the communists fielded candidates against the great doctor in the North Bombay constituency. Shripal Dange, the communist leader, went to the extent of calling Babasaheb a divider of the working class and a traitor, advising his voters to ensure Dr Ambedkar wasn't elected. Babasaheb lost the election, landing in the fourth position. This loss and the vitriolic match-fixing against him also contributed to the deterioration of his health.

Fast forward to 2024, his grandson Prakash Ambedkar AKA Balasaheb has entered the election battlefield with his party Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). Much like Dr Ambedkar, he faces a similar smear campaign from the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance, its lackeys, and its godi media, with his party being labelled as the B team of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Let us examine whether their claims hold water or not.

The Politics of ‘Vanchit’ vs ‘Prasthapit’

The anti-caste movement spanning millennia right from the Buddha to the Bhakti saints, Phule and Dr. Ambedkar to the current post-Babasaheb age has always advocated for universal social justice. It has rejected social hierarchies enforced by the Brahminical caste system and stood with the marginalised also known as the ‘Vanchits’. “...ours is a battle for freedom; for reclamation of human personality”, Dr Ambedkar famously said. 

Unfortunately, that's not the primary battle being fought in mainstream politics. Beneath the façade of the Hindu-Muslim secular-communal binary, lies the skeleton of the battle amongst different ‘Prasthapit’ or the dominant castes across the political spectrum. More specifically, a 'Game of Thrones' between family members of the same or different dominant castes, a phenomenon colloquially known as Parivarwad. So even if one family member loses the election, the other wins and power stays within the family. People seem to understand nepotism clearly but find it difficult to grasp the direct link between nepotism and caste. Such feudal politics lays bare its ugly form even in the seemingly progressive Maharashtra. 

Does Maha Vikas Aghadi practise the politics of Vanchits? At least Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party(NCP) claim themselves to be the champions of ‘purogami’ (progressive) thought. But does it match with reality? Let's find out.

All political parties from the MVA and Mahayuti practise dominant caste family politics. In the case of MVA, its leaders belong mostly to the rich land-owning Marathas, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKPs) as well as some dominant Other Backward Castes (OBCs) with some exceptions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) as well. The BJP leadership seems to consist mostly of Brahmin-Banias. They distribute the management of the political party to their family heirs and this is how they ensure the monopoly of their kith and kin in the state. 

Not only do they not democratise their political leadership, but the candidates they field in the elections also belong to their families. This is not just true for the current elections but this has been their praxis since their inception. This political tradition has led to a handful of families enjoying skewed access to wealth and resources at the expense of the Bahujan masses who have become poorer with time. How then can any of these parties claim to work for the Vanchits of Maharashtra? 

Ambedkarism has always challenged this hegemony of caste-based parties with its progressive and representative brand of politics. From the “Jiski jitni sankhya bhari uski utni hissedari” model of BSP to the ‘representation of vanchits’ by VBA which includes religious minorities as well.

Coming to the current elections, VBA and MVA agreed to hold alliance talks and this saga continued for more than a year. Finally, VBA came up with a proposal to leave 15 seats for OBCs, and three seats for minorities, endorsing Jarange Patil, the current leader of the Maratha reservation movement in the Jalna seat. All in all to ensure due representation to the different demographics of Maharashtra. Most importantly, these conditions included MVA candidates pledging, in writing, to not defect to the BJP after the elections. 

Mismanagement, insults, muscle flexing, feuds 

Ever since VBA agreed to get involved with MVA alliance meetings, there has been utter miscommunication from the latter. VBA sent letter after letter to different MVA partners. Most of the time there was no response and no invitations for MVA/INDI Alliance meetings. 

Congress leader Vijay Wadettivar even remarked, “Was it a Satyanarayan Pooja for him to be invited?” To which Prakash Ambedkar responded with, “Untouchability persists not only in society but also in politics. With the rise of the BJP-RSS, both the Congress and the NCP, who are proponents and followers of traditional Sanatan Dharma, have begun practising political untouchability.” He further questioned, “If an invitation was deemed unnecessary for the INDIA alliance meeting, why were invitations extended to various other parties?” 

Thereafter, VBA was invited to an MVA meeting and Dhairyavardhan Pundkar joined the meeting as a VBA representative. He presented the VBA proposal which included 25 points for a common minimum program which included some important points such as creating a law for Minimum Support Price (MSP), strengthening Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC), regarding youth unemployment, the issue of SC/STs and OBCs being pushed out of Gairan land, Maratha reservation and so on. He stressed the fact that Ambedkarite politics is not just about “Dalit” politics, as it is often mischaracterised, but rather, it is concerned with the social as well as the economic issues of all marginalised communities.

Instead of commenting on issues, the MVA leaders seemed more interested in seat-sharing talks as there was no consensus on it. Pundkar suggested beginning the conversation with a 12-12-12-12 seat-sharing formula decided by VBA since there was no headway on this issue. Additionally, he asked the MVA leaders to officially induct VBA into MVA before starting seat-sharing talks. It is important to note that VBA did not stake claim over any Lok Sabha seats and asked MVA to sort out their quarrels before VBA negotiated with them. Amid the meeting, Pundkar was asked to sit outside for one hour, feeling ostracised, he left the meeting. When probed by the press outside the MVA meeting location, he stated that he felt insulted because of the treatment meted out to him by the MVA leaders. 

Subsequently, a lack of communication ensued. No response was received for the proposals as well. Finally, VBA received an invitation for another meeting to finalise seat-sharing talks which Prakash Ambedkar attended. This was his last meeting with MVA. He mentioned 15 constituencies where VBA had a lot of voter base and asked MVA to grant him a respectable number of seats from that list. Eventually, having waited for their response and receiving none, he stated that there was radio-silence from MVA's side.

In reality, there was no agreement among the MVA partners themselves regarding seat sharing, with each of them trying to flex their power and claim a large number of seats. Since the MVA meetings started, there have been plenty of defections to the BJP, rebels threatening to fight as independent candidates, and an unending feud over seats. Naseem Khan resigned from the campaign committee of the Congress party stating, “Congress wants muslim votes, but not candidates” since the MVA didn't field a single Muslim candidate in the elections. Also, many Congress insiders claimed that the party is upset with the dictatorial behaviour of UBT as they took over traditional seats of Congress. 

After Prakash Ambedkar realised that none of the VBA proposals were accepted by MVA leaders and that only three seats were left aside for VBA, two of which were reserved seats and the third being Akola which is considered as Balasaheb’s stronghold, he started declaring VBA’s candidates to start his own preparations for the election, seeing that MVA is not serious about joining hands with VBA. Sujat Ambedkar, Prakash Ambekar’s son accused the MVA of practising casteism for being offered reserved constituencies. As previously noted, this is a dirty reality about these mainstream political parties that they possess a casteist gaze that looks at Ambedkarite parties only as parties of SCs and STs.

If the Maha Vikas Aghadi were so concerned about defeating the BJP, why didn't they, as the responsible major opposition alliance, take the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi into confidence, officially induct them into the alliance, and allocate them a reasonable number of seats, say at least 6-7 seats, to ensure a unified opposition effort? The miscommunication, disrespect, and contempt are indicators that MVA was rather interested in building its base by winning more seats than defeating the BJP.

Aya Ram Gaya Ram and the pseudo secularism of MVA

Today we see opposition parties rallying under the agenda of saving the Indian Constitution as they fear if the BJP wins for the third consecutive term, they might change the constitution and establish dictatorship. This fear in and of itself seems valid considering BJP’s brand of Hindutva politics but the political rhetoric surrounding it seems to have a well-planned agenda built by the mainstream opposition parties to seek votes based on instilling fear about the BJP. However, what indeed seems likely is that BJP’s win might further the rise of Hindutvawad in India which is why it made sense for progressive groups to unite and nip it in the bud. With this, the most important question to ask ourselves is, do we really have a principled secular opposition alliance?

Allow me to explain how we don't. First question, how do “secular” parties like the Congress and NCP even think of having an alliance with a devout hindutvawadi Uddhav Thackeray who has been complicit in fanning the flames of Hindutva and still endorses the ideology of his father Bal Thackeray who was held responsible for communal riots, casteism, and islamophobia? Bal Thackeray, like the BJP, endorsed Hindu Rashtra and the idea of dictatorship. What excuse do secular parties have for allying with Uddhav Thackeray, who reveres Savarkar even while being in MVA and proudly reminisces about his father taking responsibility for demolishing Babri Masjid? 

Now, you might argue that VBA itself had a prior alliance with UBT. That is true, but the origins of that alliance occurred only after both Uddhav Thackeray and Prakash Ambedkar met at an event to launch Uddhav's grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray's website, ‘Prabodhankar 2.0’. Prabodhankar, unlike his son Bal Thackeray, was a devout anti-caste figure who collaborated with Babasaheb Ambedkar on many occasions. It was under the promise of Uddhav, to transform the party, that Prakash Ambedkar allied with him. Later, Prakash Ambedkar broke the alliance, stating that Uddhav was not serious about his principles. 

Second question, do we really think the NCP is secular? Sharad Pawar is the one who supported the BJP to form the government in 2014 albeit from outside. His stance is always considered unpredictable and even today there are rumours in political spaces where it is opined that he might even have a post-poll alliance with the BJP to form a government. There is an interesting analysis about how Sharad Pawar was responsible for the rise of Manohar Bhide, the Hindutva activist who was named as a fellow co-conspirator of the Bhima Koregaon Violence against Scheduled Castes.

Now the reader may ask, what about Congress? Is it secular? Rahul Gandhi does seem secular but do we know that it was the Congress government led by his father Rajiv Gandhi who opened the locks to Babri Masjid and laid the foundation for building the Ram temple? He was also the one who blamed VP Singh for implementing the Mandal Commission equating it with “breaking up” the country. We know that over time the party has moved to the Right and started practising ‘soft hindutva'. During the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, gaushalas were built across the state. We must also ask why Nana Patole who has himself been with the BJP for nine years fielded an ex-RSS man to fight against Prakash Ambedkar in the Akola seat. The very fact that Congress can have an alliance with Uddhav’s Shiv Sena demonstrates the veracity of their commitment to secularism.

Coming to turn coats, this is an issue that is not alien to Maharashtra politics in any sense. Aya Ram gaya Ram has been demonstrated in such a unique way that Shiv Sena and NCP got divided into two parts, one half of which defected to the opponent’s camp. Meanwhile, Congress experienced a slew of defections which included popular leaders like Ashok Chavan, Milind Deora, Sanjay Nirupam, Gourav Vallabh.

What secular voters need to ask themselves is, how can these Congress heavyweights suddenly start speaking BJP’s language of Hindutva after preaching secularism all their lives? Their sudden love for Hindutva cannot always be attributed merely to Enforcement Directorate raids or pressure tactics from the BJP. We must acknowledge that Hindutva thought has seeped into the mind of every Indian after years of Hinduisation of the Indian republic. 

That the BJP is the sole custodian of Hindutvawad is a palpably false statement. Bal Thackeray is called the Hindu Hruday Samrat while the MNS party of Raj Thackeray is further to the Right as compared to the BJP. These parties have pulled the political spectrum so much to the Right that even the far-Left parties including the communists had to appease the masses with soft Hindutva for votes. This is how we can explain the phenomenon of closeted hindutvawadis among the rank and file of Congress and its allies.

Conducting the caste census, raising the 50% cap on reservation, and strengthening the SC/ST sub-plans are some of the points mentioned in the Congress Party’s manifesto. After reading this manifesto, one might actually feel that the Congress party is the most anti-caste party that exists in India. Rahul Gandhi's newfound love for the caste census may also surprise people. His uttering of “jitni aabadi, utna haq” may make one feel that he is some random loyal BSP party worker who believes in the philosophy of equal representation. 

Now consider Uddhav Thackeray’s sudden concern for saving the Constitution, or his call to prevent the rise of dictatorship. Has this been Uddhav Thackeray’s or his party’s core ideology? Is this the true agenda of Rahul and Uddhav or is there more to the story than meets the eye? 

The Congress party has been the single most powerful force that has had more experience than anyone else in opposing the rise of Ambedkarism in this country, right from targeting Dr Ambedkar to criticising his movement after him. Babasaheb has extensively written about this and a curious reader must genuinely make an effort to read his writings especially his ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables’ to truly grasp what Dr Ambedkar experienced at the hands of the Congress party. 

Ramdas Athavale, the leader of the Republican Party of India (Athavale) [RPI(A)] made one very apt observation, “Why was there a need for “Bharat Jodo Andolan today? Has the Congress failed to unite the country in 60 years of its rule?” In reality, this is neither about ‘Bharat Jodo’ nor about social justice. This is a mere election strategy rooted in misappropriation of BSP, VBA, and other Ambedkarite party philosophies to break the vanchit voters from the Ambedkarite parties and merge them into the congress votebank to win seats after failing to do so for long.

Similarly, it would be politically immature to paint a secular image of Uddhav Thackeray considering he has not admitted to being so. The likely reason he broke up with the BJP is because of the power struggle between him and Devendra Fadnavis to prove who’s more powerful in Maharashtra and best suited to carry forward the legacy of Hindutvawad. We can say this because Uddhav Thackerey stated that Fadnavis promised to share the Maharashtra CM seat for two-and-a-half years between the Shiv Sena and BJP and that Fadnavis promised to make Aditya Thackeray, Uddhav’s son the CM of Maharashtra, but later they didn't get along which led to the split between Shiv Sena and BJP.

To summarise, rest assured, we can be certain that we cannot rely on this so-called opposition to truly defend Indian secularism. To plead with the VBA's core voters to reject VBA and vote for MVA might seem quite rational and straightforward but the reality of politics isn't that simple. Which secular voter can guarantee that UBT won't merge with Shiv Sena in a post-poll scenario to ensure their common ideology of Hindutvawad stays strong? Similarly, who can guarantee that Sharad Pawar’s party won't merge with NCP and back the BJP to help complete its' ‘400 paar’ figure considering the histories of both these parties?

Why didn't these parties accept Prakash Ambedkar’s proposal to make their candidates sign a pledge to not defect to the BJP? Did they have Plan B in mind or were they merely unsure of the faithfulness of their candidates? In either case, we must understand that politics is unpredictable and that our aim must be to foster true secular fronts against fascist forces, something the nation desperately needs. The next question must be, what is the solution for today? Is there a genuine alternative? Before we get to that, let us understand the underlying reason why the B Team anxiety exists in Indian politics. 

The reality of B Team: Is it time to rethink the First Past the Post System?

The B Team charge is a pretty interesting one. It is conveniently imposed on some while others are immune to it. Consider the Samajwadi Party and Congress in Uttar Pradesh. There are plenty of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha seats where both land up in the third and fourth places below the BJP and BSP respectively in terms of votes. But we rarely see media coverage blaming them for being the B Team of BJP. We only see such accusations being imposed on the BSP when its rank falls below these parties. 

The same is true for VBA. Can Congress admit that it acted as the B team of BJP during the last Lok sabha elections when it landed on the third rank in terms of votes below Prakash Ambedkar in the Akola constituency? Additionally, we need to understand that the VBA represents the Dhangar, Mali, Teli and other such micro-OBC castes that are considered to be the traditional voters of BJP. Then why does MVA still accuse VBA to be the B Team of BJP? AIMIM being a Muslim party also goes through the same accusations during each election. 

These charges are therefore made only against parties represented by the marginalised sections which reeks of casteism and islamophobia. The best way to insult the marginalised is to attack their representative leadership thereby reducing them to mere agency-less votebanks. But the vanchits have shown time and again that their agency is not for sale, by sticking with parties that fight for their rights. 

In a parliamentary democracy, we have the provision of having multiparty elections. We do not live in a Presidential system where effectively only two parties dominate electorally. To accuse a party of dividing votes, to put the entire blame on them for helping the BJP, and to ask them to wait for a ‘right time’ by not contesting elections ‘this time’, in order to save democracy, is ironically undemocratic and unconstitutional. Every democratic Indian must condemn such irresponsible statements if and when they are made by political parties, civil society groups, media, or even the voters.

If they must blame something, they can blame the First Past the Post voting system which promotes the practice of tactical voting which leads people to choose “the lesser of two evils” candidate which is surely not indicative of the favourite choice of the voter. In a ‘winner takes all’ system, the votes of the second-best party, even if they've lost merely by a single vote, is wasted. This method fails to factor in the large number of votes that represent the other parties who came a close second or third. 

According to Duverger’s law, an idea in political science, countries with first-past-the-post methods eventually lead to a two-party system. So to prevent bipolar results, we need to move towards the system of proportional representation which would prevent both the monopoly of the party with the highest votes as well as the phenomenon of ‘spoiler effect’. 

The true ideological opposition to Hindutva and a pragmatic compromise

It’s 2024 and at least by now, as progressives, we must all conclude what was identified years ago by the likes of Phule and Dr Ambedkar that Hindutva is merely a mask behind which hides the true face of the evil that is Brahminism. It is not the entire Hindu society but the minority privileged sections of Hindus who are responsible for Hinduising different castes and making them fight the religious minorities. It is this hierarchical system that we must counter to truly end casteist and communal issues that are weakening the unity and integrity of India.

It is only the Ambedkarite movement that has truly problematised fundamental social evils and found a solution to them. This is why it is necessary to lend a hand and strengthen this movement that seeks to liberate all the oppressed belonging to marginalised genders, sexual orientations, races, religions, and indeed castes.

Speaking of Maharashtra, in today’s scenario, if secular voters in Maharashtra care about preserving the constitution, they ought to vote for a truly secular alternative which I argue is the VBA led by constitution-creator Dr Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Ambedkar. The evidence of their commitment to defeat the BJP can also be proven by the fact that even after failed alliance talks with MVA, they backed two Congress and one NCP candidate. Ambedkar has also given a proposal to the Congress to unite with VBA in the upcoming Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha elections, which might be held in the last quarter of this year, to unite all secular votes and defeat the right wing parties.

We must also understand that every vote for Shiv Sena (UBT) is a vote for Hindutvawad. Therefore, I would like to present an argument to prevent the dangers mentioned in the previous sections of this article. In the spirit of pragmatic compromise, if secular voters choose to vote for Congress candidates where VBA candidates seem weak, and opt for VBA candidates where there is a direct fight between UBT and BJP or UBT and Shiv Sena, to ensure neither gets elected, then we could ensure that secular votes move only towards secular candidates. You may call this an indirect alliance of secular voters, if you must. However, we need to come up with some sort of strategy; otherwise, the blame for risking democracy lies solely with us.

In conclusion, we must understand that voting out BJP won't lead to the defeat of Hindutvawad. This ideology is etched into the minds of a lot of Indians and it will take plenty of social movements to slowly rid the society of such mindsets. Hindutva was largely allowed to grow and permeate into the Indian culture, thanks to the incapability and unprincipledness of the secular parties who were responsible for creating a fertile ground for it to prosper. Creating a progressive nation will require the efforts of all the right-thinking Indians who wish to take India from the backward muddied waters of ignorance and hate into the modern age.

Shogun Gaikwad is an Ambedkarite from Thane who writes on socio-political issues with an emphasis on Ambedkarism. The author acknowledges his deepest gratitude to fellow Ambedkarites Shriya Dharade and Chanchal Kumar for their invaluable assistance in proofreading this article. Views expressed are author’s own.

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