The OBC identity has come of age since 1993
But it must be seen if the OBCs have shed their caste consciousness enough to support a party led by a DalitUpdated: May 13, 2019 21:55 IST
Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) has enthused Bahujan activists and intellectuals in Maharashtra. The party was registered with the Election Commission of India only this year and has fielded candidates in 47 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, leaving one seat to its alliance partner, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). The last phase of the voting in the state ended on April 29.
If the VBA manages to win a few of the seats it is contesting, the party will emerge as a serious third contender for the Maharashtra assembly elections due later in the year, competing directly against both the Shiv Sena–Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliances.
The VBA’s entry into Maharashtra’s political scene and its arithmetic of coalescing Dalit, OBC and Adivasi votes may seem spontaneous but the social constituencies Ambedkar is targeting are nothing but the repackaging of his famous Akola pattern that had given him limited success in the 1990s. Political observers have often accused Dalit leaders of confining their politics only to Mahars and neo-Buddhists. But Ambedkar has defied this charge right since the formation of his first political organisation — Bharatiya Republican Party (BRP) — in 1984. Ambedkar has consistently given space to non-Mahar, non-Dalit politicians in his parties (BRP, BRP Bahujan Mahasangh and now VBA) and has raised issues concerning all the major marginalised groups in Maharashtra, that is, Adivasis, nomadic tribes, Dalits and OBCs. His aspiration to create a mass base among all the non-Brahmin voters doesn’t remain hidden.
In the 1990s, Ambedkar took the lead in forming the Bahujan Mahasangh, a political front very similar to the VBA in its ideology and mobilisation. Though the Bahujan Mahasangh was not successful in either reining in the hegemony of the Maratha-dominated Congress or the eventual ascendancy of Shiv Sena–BJP alliance in the state, it had created hopes of an autonomous Bahujan politics similar to the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.
Mahesh Gavaskar wrote in 1994 in the Economic and Political Weekly, “No more does Kanshi Ram or Prakash Ambedkar talk of alliance with established parties. Self-respect and self-reliance are the catchwords. While Kanshi Ram, in his newly gained confidence, dismisses reservations as crutches, Ambedkar talks of contesting 288 Maharashtra assembly seats ... A slogan of the BMS [Bahujan Mahasangh] says: ‘Bhik Nako Sattechi! Satta Havi Hakkachi!!’ (We spurn the crumbs of power! We demand our rightful share!!)”
In the 1990s, Ambedkar used to say that Congress was in the hands of 137 Maratha households. He has now revised that figure to 169, saying these 169 households control not just the Congress and the NCP but also sugar cooperatives, district cooperative banks and zilla parishads. Ambedkar has time and again tried carving out an independent existence for his parties, away from both communal and secular parties.
Suhas Palshikar had written in 1994 in the Indian Journal of Political Science, “The Congress (I) in Maharashtra represents the entrenched interests. But because of its predominantly non-Brahmin character and its history of bringing about transfer of power from Brahmins to Marathas, it had the garb of a secular and socially progressive force. The Bahujan Mahasangh attempts to provide an alternative political force by exposing the Congress (I). Thus, the Mahasangh’s ideology has a distinctive social flavour and its politics is based on a critical assessment of the Congress (I). It has posed the political problem as ‘Congress vs bahujans’.”
The VBA, taking a leaf out of Bahujan Mahasangh’s history, has also framed the problem as “Congress/NCP/Shiv Sena/BJP vs Bahujans”. The government in Maharashtra has kept alternating between Shiv Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP since 1995 but these parties have failed to provide meaningful representation to marginalised communities in the state power. The VBA’s activists were seen repeating the slogan “Bhik Nako Sattechi, Satta Havi Hakkachi” in the current election campaign. Ambedkar regularly ventriloquized marginalised communities by saying we no more want to depend on the patronage of the BJP and the Congress. We will get hold of the power and solve our problems ourselves.
When Bahujan Mahasangh entered the political scene in 1993, the Indian government had just started implementing reservations for the OBCs. The OBC identity has come of age in the three decades since. The OBCs have embraced this collective identity for administrative benefits and due to their immersion in the Phule-Ambedkarite politics. The ground is more fertile for Ambedkar’s success in 2019 than it was in 1993. However, it needs to be seen if the OBCs — the largest bloc among the marginalised — have shed their caste consciousness enough to wholeheartedly support a party led by a Dalit person.
Tejas Harad is a social and political commentator
The views expressed are personal