Prakash Ambedkar has been around for a long time in Maharashtra politics and had even allied with the Congress in 1998 Lok Sabha election winning the Akola seat on a RPI ticket. Following the splintering of the RPI into multiple factions, he named his faction the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) and won the Akola seat again in the 1999 Lok Sabha election in alliance with the Congress. Post 1999, Prakash Ambedkar has had no such luck in the Lok Sabha election where he has lost the Akola seat four times since. In 2019 he contested from two seats, Akola and Solapur. He lost both his seats and took down Sushil Kumar Shinde down along with him in Solapur. But credit must be given to Prakash Ambedkar for his persistence as he fought and lost the Akola LS seat in the 1984, 1989, 1991 and 1991 elections before tasting success.
Despite having lost individually, Prakash Ambedkar has emerged as the joker in the pack in the recently concluded Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra. He formed a front of many small parties called the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) and had allied with the AIMIM of Owaisi brothers. VBA did not win any seat of their own though ally AIMIM won the Aurangabad seat. But the biggest success of Ambedkar was that the VBA spoilt the chances of the Congress and NCP on seven seats (check the table below).
The Congress led by Ashok Chavan and NCP led by Sharad Pawar knew that the VBA would spoil their chances and attempted to have a pre-poll alliance with the VBA. The UPA offered four to six seats to the VBA and were trying to get Ambedkar to agree for a tie-up. But Prakash Ambedkar kept making ridiculous seat demands from the UPA, even asking for 20 seats at a point of time. Predictably the talks failed, much to the glee of Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray.
Why was Prakash Ambedkar acting so unreasonably with the UPA? Was he secretly in cahoots with the NDA? These are the questions whose answers will have long-term ramifications on Maharashtra and national politics (since Maharashtra contributes 48 seats to the Lok Sabha). But to understand the answer, we need to understand the support base of the Congress, NCP and the VBA. Congress has historically been the party of Marathas, Dalits and Muslims. NCP which is a breakaway faction of the Congress took away a large number of Maratha voters from the Congress, along with a few OBC voters. Pawar developed the leadership of Chagan Bhujbal precisely to attract OBC votes, though the move was opposed by Maratha leaders within the NCP. Congress and NCP came together to keep the shared Maratha votebank intact and consolidate the muslim voters as well. Prakash Ambedkar has relied on the mahar voters (Hindu SC caste which converted to Buddhism with Bharat Ratna Babasaheb Ambedkar). The neo buddhist voters also voted for the Congress in areas where the RPI and it’s factions were weak.
Post the rise of Narendra Modi at the nation stage from 2013, the decline of the Congress party began. Prakash Ambedkar sensed a great opportunity in this situation and is looking to wean away the muslim and residual dalit (neo buddhist) voters away from the Congress. For that purpose, he allied with the AIMIM of the Owaisi brothers. AIMIM is seen as an all out muslim party in Maharashtra. This has implications of pushing the Maratha and other caste Hindu voters towards the NDA.
Prakash Ambedkar planned this innings very carefully when he came into the limelight in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon agitation (Neo Buddhist groups celebrate the anniversary of a battle in a big way where the Mahar regiment of the British Bombay army defeated the Maratha army of the Peshwas). There was violence done by the dalit groups this year after this annual celebration. Ambedkar chose the platform to come into limelight and establish his leadership among the dalits especially for the neo Buddhists. Plus he already has the halo of being the grandson of the great Babasaheb Ambedkar.
In the recent Lok Sabha election, the VBA seems to have got the majority votes of the neo Buddhists (mahars) and in some cases of the OBC castes like the Dhangars (because of the candidate). Dhangars are traditional NDA voters but they are agitating for Scheduled Tribes status. The alliance with AIMIM did not go well for the VBA, as the muslims stuck to the Congress and NCP. The muslims voted enmasse for the AIMIM in Aurangabad where a Sena rebel polled 2.5 lakh votes, allowing the AIMIM to scrape through by 5,000 odd votes. Ambedkar though has persisted with the tie-up with AIMIM. There is a strong chance that following the Congress debacle across the country in the Lok Sabha 2019 polls, muslims might vote for the AIMIM and it’s ally the VBA in larger numbers goign ahead.
Such a move by the muslim voters and the neo Buddhist voters could spell doom for the Congress. Prakash Ambedkar is patiently working towards such a scenario where a weak Congress could mean emergence of a strong third pole in the state. There are voices in the Congress who want to jettison the NCP and ally with the VBA. However it is unlikely that Prakash Ambedkar might want to ally with the Congress when he can very much replace it in the next 5-10 years. Also the Congress and NCP might face another problem if they agree to Ambedkar’s humiliating terms and agree to give him 80-100 seats in Maharashtra. The predominantly Maratha second rung leadership of both the parties might take it as a caste insult and shift towards the BJP and Shiv Sena. VBA-AIMIM as the third pole in the upcoming Maharashtra assembly election may win 10-15 seats but have the potential to hit the Congress-NCP in 50-75 seats. This could pave the way for an easy win for the BJP and Shiv Sena.
In conclusion Prakash Ambedkar is the person to watch in the next five years. He is not in the reckoning to form the government in the state, but he can be the catalyst who could transform the bipolar politics of the state.