Mumbai: Take a step back into the past, to a Mumbai 10 years gone. As a metropolis bestirs itself to decide its fate for the next half-decade, there’s an idea in the air: Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti. The Shiv Sena — its turbulent history with Dalit rights groups set aside for the moment — and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have joined hands with the Republican Party of India (Athawale) or RPI(A), an offshoot of B.R. Ambedkar’s political legacy. And the gambit pays off, somewhat, at the ballot box.
Flash forward to 2022 and a spot of déjà vu. Another Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election looms on the horizon — and murmurs of Bhim Shakti-Shiv Shakti are heard once again. Uddhav Thackeray’s faction of the Sena is in talks with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar. Their common goal? To take on what remains of the original alliance, a coalition of the BJP and the RPI(A).
Speculation about a formal alliance between the Sena and the VBA gained currency when Thackeray and Ambedkar shared a stage Sunday during the launch of Prabodhankar.com at the Shivaji Mandir auditorium in Dadar, Mumbai. This website is dedicated to Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s father Keshav, a prolific author — known by his pen name Prabodhankar — and social reformer who took up causes including the fight against untouchability.
Asked whether his party was considering an alliance with Thackeray’s faction — the Shiv Sena Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) — Ambedkar told ThePrint: “The Sena has initiated the talks and yes, we are open to the alliance. But in what form or shape this alliance will be, I don’t know yet. Now whether this alliance is only restricted till the Sena or what, only the Sena knows.”
Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, meanwhile, told reporters in Delhi Sunday, “Uddhav Thackeray and Prakash Ambedkar’s coming together could show direction to the country, and positive steps are being taken towards it.”
An alliance with B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson, if it materialises, could help Thackeray revive his party in the wake of an exodus of MPs and MLAs who coalesced into the Shinde-led Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena following a vertical split in the party earlier this year. In particular, it could give the former chief minister a leg up in the Vidarbha region during the 2024 general and assembly elections, according to political analyst Hemant Desai.
Shiv Sena & Dalit Panthers
The Shiv Sena, and its founder Bal Thackeray, share a long and uncomfortable history with Dalit rights groups. Tension between them peaked in the 1970s when Dalits came together under the banner of the Dalit Panthers, with Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal at their helm.
The Panthers clashed with Sena more than once, including when Bal Thackeray opposed their demand to rename Marathwada University after Ambedkar. Violence between Shiv Sainiks and the Panthers over the issue marked the prolonged Namantar agitation, which culminated in the Worli Riots in Mumbai in 1974.
As the 1980s approached, a decline in the Dalit Panthers’ graph led to a vacuum in Dalit politics, which coincided with a split in the Republican Party of India (RPI) into multiple factions. Of these, only the splinter group led by Ramdas Athawale — now a Union minister in the National Democratic Alliance government — has survived the rough and tumble of politics.
The 1980s saw a renewed flare-up between Sena and Dalit rights groups over Bal Thackeray’s opposition to the Maharashtra government’s decision to publish B.R. Ambedkar’s complete works. Among those works was Riddles of Hinduism, in which Ambedkar was critical of the god Rama. The Sena held statewide protests demanding a ban on the book, but pressure from Dalit rights groups put Thackeray on the back foot.
According to Desai, the political analyst, it was such campaigns that saddled the Sena with an “anti-Dalit” image.
It’s an image Uddhav Thackeray sought to discard as early as 2003, when as working president of the Sena, he extended a “hand of co-operation” to Dalits. Maharashtra will be set on the path of peace and social tranquility if Bhim Shakti makes common cause with Shiv Shakti, he had said at the unveiling of Prabodhankar’s portrait at Mumbai University that year. Nine years later, he would take this idea forward with the alliance in the BMC election.
And now, Prabodhankar has provided another occasion for his grandson to revive that “common cause”.
Speaking during the launch of the website in Mumbai Sunday, Uddhav said, “If we will not come together and fight to protect democracy, then we both have no right to talk about the legacy of our grandfathers. Dr B.R. Ambedkar did not sit idly after seeing the inequality in society — he united the people and fought against the tyranny of rulers. Even my grandfather Prabodhankar wrote about the evil practices in society and fought against them.”
In Uddhav’s move — coming on the heels of his alliance with the Maratha outfit Sambhaji Birgade, struck in August — Desai sees an “ideological shift” in Maharashtra politics. It looks like the Thackeray-led Sena is trying to pivot towards Prabodhankar’s ideology in a bid to revamp its image, he said.
Raut, the vocal MP from the Uddhav-led faction of the Sena, sees this alliance as part of a bigger game plan. “This topic is not limited to one civic body, but to bring in a change in Maharashtra and the country. Prakash Ambedkar and the Shiv Sena and our other opposition parties in the state should come together and this could be an ideal formula, not just for Maharashtra but for the country,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Importance of being Prakash Ambedkar
Founded by Prakash Ambedkar in 2018, the VBA contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election in alliance with the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Although it didn’t win a single seat, the VBA garnered 14 per cent of the total votes polled in the state, and reportedly dented the Congress’s prospects in at least seven seats.
While the VBA’s performance in the Maharashtra assembly election later that year was also lacklustre, the Congress blamed the party for its losses in at least 25 seats.
Desai said Ambedkar wields considerable influence in Vidarbha, especially the Akola region, where his party could help Thackeray-led Sena expand its influence.
“There are corporation elections in many places and if the VBA can get a few corporators elected, it’s good for them,” he added, underlining how an alliance with the Sena would result in more visibility for the VBA.
How this alliance would relate to the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) — a coalition comprising the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Thackeray-led Sena — is yet to be determined.
“Basically, since the last Lok Sabha polls in 2019, the Congress-NCP had opposed taking Vanchit (VBA) along. We had asked them to give us seats they had lost. But the Congress NCP doesn’t have an accommodative nature. But now the Sena is with the MVA. So whether they will take Vanchit as MVA or not, nobody knows yet,” said Ambedkar.
But the impact this possible alliance will have on society at large will depend on whether Thackeray will adhere to Prabodhankar’s Hindutva, he added. “If that’s the case, then social changes will be on a larger scale for the non-savarna class.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)