NEW DELHI— On 31 December 2017, Prakash Yashwant Ambedkar was just one of many leaders of the Republican Party of India's many splintered factions in Maharashtra.
Three days later Ambedkar — who is a lawyer, the head of the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh, and most importantly the grandson of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — grew in influence as a focal point of Dalit protest in the wake of an attack on Dalits in Bhima Koregoan two days earlier.
His party has only one MLA in the Maharashtra state assembly with 3.5 % vote share in last assembly elections and controls the Zila Parishad (Municipal Council) in Akola district of Maharashtra, but Ambedkar was suddenly a much sought after ally.
The Congress began seat-sharing negotiations for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, and state elections later next year, in a bid to channel Muslim and Dalit disaffection with the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party.
But earlier this week, on October 2, Ambedkar shared the stage with All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi at a massive rally in Aurangabad and announced the formation of "Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi" along with AIMIM.
Ambedkar's decision to align with the AIMIM, and possibly undercut a united opposition to the BJP, prompted accusations that the grandson of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is working in cahoots with the BJP. This perception has only grown with the sheer scale of the Aurangabad rally, and the live telecast on many Marathi news channels — and a first for any Ambedkar or Owaisi rally.
"Any division in the larger coalition will certainly help the BJP."
The Ambedkar-Owaisi alliance is the most recent illustration of the difficulty of stitching together a united opposition to counter the BJP, despite widespread consensus that the party is unpopular both at the centre and in the state.
"Any division in the larger coalition will certainly help the BJP," said Vikas Jambulkar, a professor of political science at Nagpur university. "The Dalit votes are divided between the Congress, now even the BJP and other splinter (Dalit) groups. The Muslim-Dalit and other marginalized combination that he is considering, does not appear to be a winnable combination at the moment."
BJP B Team?
The BJP's own unhappy coalition partner in Maharashtra, the Shiva Sena, has alleged the Ambedkar-Owaisi alliance was "sponsored" by the BJP to divide the Congress's presumed support amongst Dalits and Muslims. Senior Congressmen in Maharashtra told HuffPost India that talks with Ambedkar broke down when he demanded 12 seats in the Lok Sabha, 25 assembly seats, and a sizeable sum of money for his support — an allegation Ambedkar denies.
"The amount of money spent on this program (Aurangabad rally), shows that the BJP is financing them secretly," said Atul Londhe, the Congress's Maharashtra spokesperson, claiming the new coalition was part of a BJP-RSS plan. "This alliance is not for the backwards but for the communal elements."
Two congressmen, speaking off record, added that Ambedkar had demanded the Congress end its alliance with Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and claimed that Ambedkar had been propped up the BJP soon after the Bhima-Koregaon violence to divide opposition to the unpopular BJP government.
"Our central leadership knows he is already hand in glove with the BJP and he is negotiating with the Congress only to increase his bargaining power with the BJP," one source said. "Ambedkar has been deliberately promoted in social-political circles and in media by the BJP after the Bhima Koregoan incident."
The Congressmen claimed Ambedkar did not know the "power of his surname", ironic for a party led by a Gandhi.
"Defeating the BJP is my agenda and I would like the Congress on board but the question is whether the Congress likes it or not."
Ambedkar has denied these allegations.
"We had been asking the Congress for an alliance but they ignored us for two months. This alliance (Ambedkar-Owaisi) is an alliance of people referred to as Vanchit," Ambedkar said."The AIMIM came forward for an alliance saying that they support our agenda. Now the Congress doesn't have any locus-standi to criticise us."
Ambedkar said he had demanded 12 Lok Sabha seats from the Congress, but he denied that he asked for money and lashed out at the grand old party for acting as the sole proprietor of secularism.
" I am not a slave of Congress, I am independent," Ambedkar said. "The day I join the BJP, the Congress will be finished. But I have restrained myself and today the same Congress is branding us as the B team of the BJP."
The Congress's ally, the NCP, Ambedkar said, had openly backed the BJP government in Maharashtra after the 2014 elections. The BJP was unpopular, Ambedkar said, but so was the Congress.
"The Congress knows it can't take on the BJP on its own," he said. "But when they are not ready to give up even lost seats, the social message is clear that they don't want a Vanchit to get elected."
Ambedkar said he was still open an alliance with the Congress, and was unworried by how the media — which is almost entirely savarna caste-owned — had portrayed him.
"They have no friends left. The Congress and the NCP are now only Maratha centric parties."
"Defeating the BJP is my agenda and I would like the Congress on board but the question is whether the Congress likes it or not," Ambedkar said. "They have no friends left. The Congress and the NCP are now only Maratha centric parties."
Imtiaz Jaleel, the AIMIM MLA from Aurangabad said an Ambedkar-Owaisi alliance will be a force to reckon with.
"Calling us the B team of the BJP is not going to work anymore. Dalit, OBCs, and Muslims are going to be a formidable force now," Jaleel said."The AIMIM did not contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election but the Congress could win only two seats and the NCP could win four in Maharashtra."
If the AIMIM had contested the 2014 elections, Jaleel said, his party would have been blamed for the losses by the Congress and the NCP.
"We realized that we have only two MLAs and we don't have a single MP," Jaleel said."If we take along someone with a good image and following from his own community why not give him strength? In the process, it would benefit Dalits and Muslims."