WHEN Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) came together to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra, voters belonging to the two communities, and to some extent all those who opposed the saffron parties in the State, felt a surge of hope. There were others who were worried that this new “unlikely” alliance would split the secular vote and destroy whatever chances the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had of securing a respectable tally. But the two saffron allies, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, seemed unconcerned about the VBA-AIMIM pact. In retrospect, they possibly had a good inkling of the game plan.
In the run-up to the announcement of the date for the Assembly election in Maharashtra on September 21, the VBA and the AIMIM dithered about continuing their alliance. Finally, in the second week of September, the on-off relationship ended. Prakash Ambedkar and Owaisi, both hard-headed politicians, stuck to their guns on the matter of distribution of seats. In the alliance’s seat-sharing arrangement for the Lok Sabha, the AIMIM was allotted one seat (Aurangabad) and the VBA 47. The AIMIM’s Imtiaz Jaleel won the Aurangabad seat but the VBA failed to win any seat.
For a newly formed alliance representing minority and marginalised groups, the VBA-AIMIM held promise.
The two partners together polled 41 lakh votes in the Lok Sabha election, that is, 14 per cent of the voters were in their favour.
Candidates of the VBA-AIMIM were able to split the votes in Nanded and Solapur, where former Congress Chief Ministers Ashok Chavan and Sushil Kumar Shinde, respectively, lost to BJP candidates. In 13 Lok Sabha seats, more than one lakh votes were cast in favour of the VBA-AIMIM. In eight seats, its vote share was more than 10 per cent. It ensured that the Congress was edged out in seven seats.
In the October 21 single-phase election to 288-member State Assembly, the AIMIM was hoping to contest 100 seats. But Prakash Ambedkar offered Owaisi’s party a mere eight seats. Owaisi wanted to negotiate, but Prakash Ambedkar refused to oblige. It was, in effect, the VBA chief’s way of saying that the alliance was off without actually saying it.
A VBA supporter from Nagpur said: “He [Prakash Ambedkar] was insulted and felt he had been taken for a ride and so he was stubborn this time. He was not going to budge… shakya nahi was his stand.” Shakya nahi, meaning not possible, is often a stand taken when something is pre-decided and any argument thereafter is futile.
In a press release, Aurangabad MP Imtiaz Jaleel said allotting only eight seats was “unacceptable and unjustified”.
At a press conference held in May, soon after the Lok Sabha results were declared and it was clear that the VBA had lost all the 47 seats it contested, Prakash Ambedkar said Muslims did not vote for the VBA although it had aligned itself with a Muslim party. Religious identity politics, although definitely a force, is not a determining factor with Muslim voters in the State. But it is an all-determining factor with Owaisi. In fact, during the Lok Sabha election, he hit out at the Congress and the NCP in an effort to erode the Congress-NCP’s historical hold on Muslims. His campaign speeches were about acts of omission of the Congress and the NCP. He drew attention to the fact that NCP leaders Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel were not present when the triple talaq Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha. He said the Congress supported the BJP in the amendment of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. While this harangue may not have helped the AIMIM win more seats in the Lok Sabha election, recent events such as the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and the Congress’ stand on it could push fence-sitting voters to believe that Owaisi’s politics was aimed for their benefit and that the Congress-NCP was less relevant.
The AIMIM says it is confident of going it alone in the Assembly election. Its current strength in Maharashtra is one MP, two legislators and approximately 150 corporators and councillors. In the 2014 Assembly election, the party contested 24 seats and won two.
The VBA, which was formed in 2018, is a relatively young party with zero representation. But Prakash Ambedkar has an advantage in that he has broadened his appeal as a politician and repositioned himself by creating a party that has a wider representation. Although rooted in Ambedkarite politics, he has long left the dead zone of the Republican Party of India and has established himself as a leader of the marginalised, disadvantaged groups. Vanchit bahujan means deprived masses.
Owaisi’s advantage is that he is seen as unwavering in his belief as a leader of Muslims and also of “oppressed classes from the weaker sections of society” as stated by Jaleel in his press note. It remains to be seen what image works for the parties.
Many political observers see the break-up of the VBA-AIMIM alliance as pitiable. There is no credible opposition in the State and the field has been left wide open for the BJP-Sena alliance to register a win. While the VBA-AIMIM was not a powerful electoral alliance that could have brought down the incumbent BJP-Sena regime, it offered an alternative to a considerable section of voters. Moreover, it had the dynamism associated with a new alliance, something that the jaded Congress-NCP has long forgotten. To that extent, the AIMIM-VBA in the opposition would have been like a mosquito, tiny but capable of pinpricks.