The Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi’s decision to field candidates in all the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra could take away OBC votes from both the Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena-BJP alliances. However, the pinch may be felt more by the Congress-NCP, the front that had been hoping to get Ambedkar its way.
In Maharashtra, OBCs comprise more than 250 castes and sub-castes, and account for nearly 52 per cent of the population. Traditionally, however, the OBC vote has been fragmented. This changed with the 2016 Maratha assertion seeking 16 per cent reservation for the community — culminating in a Marathas-versus-OBC polarisation.
Unlike SC/STs, OBCs don’t have any reserved seats in the Lok Sabha or Assembly elections, though there is a 27 per cent quota for them in local bodies like gram sabhas and panchayats. Out of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats, there are five SC seats and four ST.
The two key players in the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (meaning Front for Deprived Castes and Communities) are the Ambedkar-led Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh and Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM. Both came together and formed the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in June last year. Later, the VBA took on board OBCs, becoming thus a conglomeration of SCs, STs, OBCs and Muslims.
Ambedkar claims they have a combined votebank of 40 per cent in Maharashtra. Party leaders cite the crowds at their rallies as a sign of their support base. Claiming over 5 lakh had turned up at some meetings addressed by Ambedkar and Owaisi, a leader said, “Such massive response has not been drawn by any leader in Maharashtra.”
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Noting the “greater ghettoisation within OBCs” since the rise of the demand for Maratha reservation, OBC Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti president Chandrakant Bavare said their greatest fear is that Marathas would use the Social and Economic Backward Class (ECBC) certificates, granted to them by the BJP state government, to assert themselves at the local political level too. “There are strong undercurrents pointing to OBCs exploring newer options in the VBA,” he added.
Between the BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP, the OBCs are seen to be closer to the Sangh alliance as the Congress and NCP are identified as Maratha-led parties. The BJP believes there is still no reason for the OBCs to leave the party, given the number of welfare measures extended by its government to OBC communities (such as the Dhangars). Among the 122 Assembly seats and 23 Lok Sabha constituencies won by the BJP in 2014, OBC representation was 40 to 45 per cent — the highest ever.
Senior BJP leader Madhav Bhandari said, “The BJP government gave 16 per cent reservation to Marathas in the special ECBC category. The 27 per cent reservation to OBCs remains intact.”
Ambedkar, who kept waiting for a tie-up with the Congress-NCP, says the OBCs won’t vote for the Congress or NCP. “NCP president Sharad Pawar’s withdrawal from Madha seat is a clear indication. The Dhangar community there had decided to teach the NCP a lesson. Its ramifications will be felt across the state… The big battle will be between the VBA and BJP-Sena across the 48 Lok Sabha seats.”
Ambedkar had demanded at least 12-13 seats to be part of a Congress-NCP mahagathbandhan. It was offered four, two each from the quota of the Congress and NCP.
Acknowledging the challenge posed by “complex OBC politics”, senior Congress Dalit leader Nitin Raut cited the example of the Vidarbha region. “If you field a Kunbhi candidate, the Teli community which is equally dominant will drift away. So, holding on to all dominant OBC castes and sub-castes together is a challenge for every party.”
Calling Ambedkar’s demands therefore untenable, Congress leaders pointed out that in the 2014 elections, of his 23 Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh candidates, 22 had lost their deposits. The total votes received by BBM candidates were 3.6 lakh, or 0.45 per cent. Even in the Assembly elections six months later, the Congress leaders say, the BBM fared no better, with 62 of its 70 candidates losing their deposits and only two of them winning.
Claiming they were not surprised by Ambedkar’s announcement that he would go alone, Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said, “We knew he would not go with us. This is because he is playing into BJP hands.” Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan too said, “We suspect he is being backed by the BJP. It is not easy to hold rallies costing over crores and fly from one place to another.”
Sawant, however, acknowledged that Ambedkar’s decision would hurt the Congress-NCP. “We can’t say how many seats will be affected, but one thing is for sure: such parties are funded by BJP to cause damage to Congress-NCP,” said Sawant.
Questioning Ambedkar’s motives, Dalit activist Manav Kamble said Ambedkar himself had never won without the Congress support. “Twice he won with Congress support, and lost four times when he did not have its support.”
Regretting Ambedkar’s decision, Kamble added that in the wake of Bhima Koregaon, “Ambedkar, the grandson of B R Ambedkar, had been able to carve out a space for himself. Instead of capitalising on it, he is trying to take the wrong path”.
Denying they were supporting him, BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari said, “He has been pouring scorn on us and making all sorts of charges. Besides, our ideologies are different.”