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Thackeray, Ambedkar and a partnership: Can there be a repeat?

Behind Uddhav Thackeray's invite to Prakash Ambedkar for an alliance against BJP, the example of their grandfathers (Prabodhankar, Babasaheb) who together took on caste system, social reforms

Shiv Sena (UBT) president Uddhav Thackeray and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar at an event to relaunch a website on Prabodhankar Thackeray. (Express photo by Ganesh Shirsekar)

To the casual watcher, the politics of the Shiv Sena and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) is poles apart. If the Sena is associated with militant Hindutva, the VBA led by B R Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar has positioned itself as staunchly secular. Until recently, an ally of the VBA, which has free-floated in the third front zone for years, was the AIMIM.

However, Maharashtra’s changing politics – with its softening of secular-communal edges – has churned up a friendship from an earlier, different time. On Monday, Uddhav Thackeray invited VBA president Prakash Ambedkar to form an alliance to fight the BJP.

The bonhomie was a throwback to the 1950s, when then Maharashtra stalwarts B R Ambedkar and Prabodhankar Thackeray had together fought against social evils such as untouchability, dowry and casteism. They were also comrades in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, for a separate state of Maharashtra with Bombay (as Mumbai was called then) as its capital.

This harking back to old ties has been made possible by Uddhav turning a more palatable shade of saffron, after his alliance with the Congress and NCP. Their common goal, Prakash and Uddhav declared at the Sunday meeting, was to take on the BJP as it posed a threat to the ideals of Constitution – framed by Babasaheb — and to the basic premise of democracy as equality for all.

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Prabodhankar first came into prominence in the late 1920s when he sought to break the upper-caste hegemony over the Ganesh festival by inviting a Dalit aide of Ambedkar to offer flowers to the deity at a puja in Dadar. There was an uproar, and the Dadar puja could not be held the next year. But the spark had been lit, and Prabodhankar along with his followers next started a ‘Shri Shri Bhawani Navratri Mahotsav’, open to people from all castes and communities. An individual from the lower-caste Mahar community unfurled a saffron flag at the venue.

Over the years, thanks to these first steps, the Ganesh Puja lost its rigid religious nature in Maharashtra and became more of a community festival.

The state was also ripe for such changes, with the ground having been prepared by the Bhakti movement, with its emphasis on anti-Brahminism and inclusivity.

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Speaking at Sunday’s event, both Uddhav and Prakash underlined that the message given by their grandfathers was more relevant than ever. Uddhav accused the BJP government at the Centre of undermining the federal nature of the Constitution, and the judiciary and other institutions. “They want the Prime Minister to directly appoint a judge,” the Sena leader said.

“Today, there is lynching if one is seen carrying beef. Those who inflict brutal crimes against women are let off (in what seemed a reference to the Bilkis Bano case),” he said. Going on to address Prakash, Uddhav added: “We have to uphold Indian democracy and the Constitution. Otherwise, what right do you and I have to recall the great work of our grandfathers? In the past, Babasaheb was personally subjected to atrocities. Yet, he fought valiantly. Prabodhankar Thackeray who witnessed the wrongs in the system supported Ambedkar… Time has come to rise and work together.”

Prakash said that years after the two stalwarts took up the fight, atrocities against Dalits and tribals continue. “In the name of religion, some segments want to retain their upper caste dominance… We have to choose whether we want democracy or dictatorship… (In this context) the writings of Prabodhankar Thackeray for social and progressive reforms are still relevant today,” he said.

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Interestingly, the VBA leader went on to suggest that secularism should not be looked at through a narrow definition. “When Babasaheb drafted the Constitution, he introduced the word ‘secular’, but the Constitution does not define it. That is because with changing times and generations, secularism can be interpreted accordingly.”

The geniality on the stage apart, there are several hurdles to coming together of the Uddhav Sena and VBA – or Shiv Shakti and Bhim Shakti, as some call it. Prakash has been clear about his opposition to Sharad Pawar and the NCP. With Pawar the tallest leader of the Marathas, he represents for the VBA the face of the community that has traditionally oppressed the lower castes.

At the same time, Prakash, a two-time Lok Sabha MP and one-term Rajya Sabha MP, is known for his political flexibility – barring his opposition to the BJP. Till 1994, he represented the Republican Party of India and pursued Dalit and anti-Congress politics. Later, he tried to expand his political base by forming a Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh where OBCs were the mainstay. In 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, he formed the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, seeking to represent all those “oppressed”. This led to an alliance with the AIMIM – on paper bringing together Dalit, OBC and Muslim votes. While the VBA did not win any seats, it cut into votes and is seen to have caused the defeat of parties like the Congress, NCP and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana in at least eight seats.

The VBA’s alliance with the AIMIM too though had proved short-lived, not surviving till even the 2019 Assembly elections.

Asked about Sunday’s meeting of minds between the Uddhav Sena and VBA, the BJP dismissed it as a desperate measure. Senior BJP leader Atul Bhatkhalkar said that, in the past, the Sena has vehemently opposed reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the Constitution. “The Shiv Sena led by the late Bal Thackeray also fought a bloody battle against Dalits to oppose the renaming of Marathwada University after Dr B R Ambedkar,” he said.

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The Sunday’s appeal for an alliance was a “survival” tactic by the two parties, Bhatkhalkar added. “They both know they are in the doldrums… Attacking the BJP or PM Narendra Modi is easy as they have nothing to offer to their own cadre.”

First published on: 22-11-2022 at 15:47 IST
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