Is VBA the “B Team” of BJP? Deconstructing the narrative

by Sai Thakur and Yashwant Zagade

prakash ambedkar
Prakash Ambedkar

Since the Lok Sabha elections were declared in Maharashtra, the epithet ‘Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) is the “B team of the BJP”’ gained traction once again, even as many top leaders from Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP-SP) and also Shiv Sena (SS-UBT) (and not from VBA) joined the BJP. These three parties and six more have formed Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Maharashtra and are pitched against MahaYuti, the coalition of BJP, Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction) and Nationalist Congress Party (Ajit Pawar faction). MVA is a part of INDIA, the pan-Indian anti-BJP front. VBA joined MVA only on 31st January 2024 and later, also INDIA. But on March 27th,  again VBA parted ways with MVA, and that fanned the flames of the “B Team of BJP ” narrative once again.

The “B Team” narrative and its deconstruction

In Sociology, “dominant narrative” is an incisive theoretical tool which uncovers the power play between the dominant and the dominated. The dominant decides what is “said” and what goes “unsaid” in the narrative and uses the narrative to diffuse attempts made by the marginalized to claim spaces hitherto controlled by the dominant. In a country where caste inequalities and prejudices permeate all spheres of life, such narratives about Dalit Bahujans are abundant. For example, the narrative of “meritocracy” attributes the underrepresentation of the “low” castes in higher education and employment to a lack of “merit”. Similarly, the “B Team” narrative indicts VBA for playing the spoilsport.

This “B Team” narrative has several sub-themes. The oral, written and visual texts that set this narrative construct Prakash Ambedkar, a Dalit, and the leader of VBA as a “nuisance creator”, “demanding and expecting more than is due to him and his party”, “stubborn”, “adamant”, “turncoat”, “opportunist” etc. The mainstream political parties, their leaders, supporters, mainstream media, their upper-caste/class audiences, and even many Left, Ambedkarite and socialist “well-wishers” of VBA have played an active role in either setting and/or perpetuating this narrative. 

VBA and the Dalit Bahujan Politics of Maharashtra

VBA is the culmination of a three-decade-long journey that began with the formation of Bhartiya Republican Party-Bahujan Mahasangh (BRP-BMS) in 1989 under the leadership of Prakash Ambedkar. It was renamed as VBA in February of 2018, and it contested with this new name for the first time in the Loksabha elections in 2019. Since its inception in 1989, the party has followed the vision of Dalit Bahujan unity for the annihilation of the caste-class-patriarchal order.  It took more than 30 years for Ambedkar to realize it. In the 2019 Loksabha elections, though the VBA-AIMIM alliance could win only one seat, they garnered around 44 lakh votes, which constituted 7.5 per cent of the total votes cast in Maharashtra. In addition to the Dalit support, VBA has been able to break ground in many Dalit and non-Dalit communities. In the Maharashtra state assembly elections in 2019, though the vote share of VBA came down by half, it is still considered a formidable player in the politics of Maharashtra.

Prakash Ambedkar’s “unwillingness” to join the INDIA and MVA?

Let us take up the sub-theme of “unwillingness” of Ambedkar to join the INDIA alliance. In August 2023, media reported that Congress had approached VBA to join INDIA, but that Prakash Ambedkar was not willing. According to media reports again, on 1st September 2023 VBA had sent a letter to Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, in which VBA stated that nobody had approached VBA for the INDIA meeting. Further, they added that VBA was open to joining INDIA. There was no response to this letter. After that, VBA sent two more letters, one on 23rd November (an invitation to Rahul Gandhi) and the second letter on 29th December (with a 12-12-12-12 seat-sharing proposal). Only after 29th December did things start moving, and on 31st January 2024, after much ado, VBA joined MVA. INDIA and MVA had taken five months to concretely respond to VBA’s proposal to join them. Understandably, many who sincerely think that the current ruling dispensation’s return to power would be the death knell for India’s vibrant democratic fabric, heaved a sigh of relief. Yet the stalemate continued, and it was attributed to VBA being the “B Team”.  The historical context in which VBA emerged, and the ideological differences that it has with MVA partners help us deconstruct the “B Team” narrative.

“Maan sanmaan”, social transformation and the fight against BJP

For Ambedkar and his party “due respect (maan-sanmaan)” and “political power (satta)” are equally important. This is the counter-narrative of VBA’s Dalit Bahujan politics. However, it has been submerged under the dominant narrative of Prakash Ambedkar’s “stubbornness”, “opportunism”, “nuisance creator” tendencies. Let us look at the historical context of VBA’s counter-narrative. After Babasaheb’s death in 1956, the Dalit political movement in Maharashtra was caught in the dilemma of whether to have an exclusive Dalit agenda or to aim for a larger alliance with non-Dalit marginalized sections. Dalit leaders were co-opted by Congress. This Dalit leadership received much flak from common Dalits and, specifically, the new generation of Dalits who spearheaded the movement of Dalit Panthers in the 1970s. It is in this context that in the mid-1980s Prakash Ambedkar emerged as a young leader. For Ambedkar and his followers, the “lachari” (bootlicking) of the Dalit leadership and politics was not to be tolerated, even if it meant staying away from political power.

Prakash Ambedkar’s approach to electoral politics is markedly different. By fielding many candidates from OBC, Minority, Adivasi, Dalit (Buddhist) and also non-Buddhist Dalit communities, he is trying to ‘democratize the politics’. Defeating RSS-BJP is an integral part of this larger struggle. They believe that the BJP, in the guise of challenging dynastic politics, is shrewdly using the strategy of subaltern Hindutva to bolster support from marginalized groups. Congress, NCP (SP) and SS (UBT) do not seem to share Prakash Ambedkar’s vision. This contradiction in the perspectives towards the upcoming election is the real bone of contention between the VBA and MVA.

Collective failure or the “B Team”’s doing?

Why did the MVA fail to take VBA on board despite repeated attempts by the latter? When VBA enjoys the support of lakhs of voters belonging to marginalized communities, it reflects the lack of political maturity on the part of MVA when they leave them out of the alliance. They know that if VBA contests alone, it is mostly a loss to the MVA. If INDIA is serious about defeating BJP, as they say, then respectfully inducting smaller yet politically very significant players is a must. BJP, for instance, is accommodating all possible players. The media narrative against Prakash Ambedkar and VBA of being the “B-team of BJP” does not harm anybody else but INDIA. It shows not only the poor political strategy but also the grip of casteist and feudal culture within the MVA partners. Fighting the current political regime is not the sole responsibility of smaller partners like the VBA.  Failure to form and sustain an alliance is to be seen as a collective failure. Rather, the primary responsibility lies with the dominant partners to make the fight more inclusive and democratic. The dominant narrative of “B Team” is a political tool used to blame VBA and absolve other players from owning their responsibility. 

Sai Thakur is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, TISS, Mumbai. Sai completed her PhD from IIT Bombay  and has been working with TISS since 2007. Caste, tribal and religious minorities and their marginalisation are themes which recur in her research and writing.

Yashwant Zagade is a PhD research scholar at TISS, Mumbai. He has completed his Masters and MPhil from TISS. His doctoral research is about OBCs and their politicization in the post-Mandal era in Maharashtra. 

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