[Interview] Aim To Break Dominant Castes' Stranglehold Over Politics; Hypocritical For Congress To Demand Caste Census: VBA Chief Prakash Ambedkar

Krishna Dange

Apr 25, 2024, 07:56 PM | Updated 11:00 PM IST

Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) chief and Akola Lok Sabha candidate Prakash Ambedkar addressing a meeting (Special Arrangement)
Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) chief and Akola Lok Sabha candidate Prakash Ambedkar addressing a meeting (Special Arrangement)
  • Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief and Akola Lok Sabha candidate in an interview with Swarajya talked about caste census, his support to the Maratha agitation, external support from MIM among others.
  • The Akola Lok Sabha constituency is set to witness a triangular fight once again between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Mahayuti, Congress led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) as it goes to polls on April 26.

    Splitting of the Dalit and Muslim votes by Ambedkar's erstwhile Bharatiya Republican Party (Ambedkar) and the VBA now, dominant in the western Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada, is said to have been the reason why Congress has been unable to win this seat since 1989 till date.

    The VBA at present has a strong presence in Akola and has been controlling the Akola District Council for more than 20 years now.

    Local political analysts opine that although the BJP's sitting Member of Parliament (MP) from Akola- Sanjay Dhotre- had an upper hand in 2019 general elections, it won't be the case this time. According to them, either of the both- VBA candidate Ambedkar or Congress's Dr Abhay Patil stand a good chance to win from here this time.

    With fears of a 2019 repeat where in the VBA is said to have split MVA's vote bank in Akola and elsewhere, Swarajya's Krishna Dange reached out to the former's chief Prakash Ambedkar to understand his politics and delve further into the debate around the demand for caste census.

    Here's the text of the recently conducted interview, edited for length and clarity:

    First impression of the Akola Lok Sabha seat - from where you are contesting for the 11th time now - is that it is a highly polarised constituency in terms of caste as well as religion. 

    Moreover, you have consistently demanded a nation-wide caste census, even before Congress started asking for the same. Considering the caste polarisation in your seat alone and as a descendent of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, don’t you think something like a nationwide caste census will only embolden caste as an identity instead of annihilating it? 

    When Congress dominated politics, the candidates as well as a large chunk of the elected representatives used to be from a handful of upper castes. The same gets repeated whenever BJP comes to power in the centre or in any state. Contrary to this, we through the VBA have attempted for the first time to include candidates from other smaller and backward castes into electoral politics. 

    For instance, if you look at the neighbouring Buldhana Lok Sabha Constituency, we (i.e. VBA) are the only ones who have fielded an OBC candidate there. Whereas, the candidates from the Mahayuti, MVA and even the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna candidate there, are all Marathas. Why couldn’t they find candidates other than those who are Maratha? Don’t the candidates from other castes deserve a chance? 

    When I question this scenario, it pinches them (i.e. the dominant castes). This is the reason why I have been demanding a caste census. It will set the record straight. It will make the marginalised castes aware of their numbers, they will realise the extent to which they are under-represented.

    But if a caste census is held and its findings are put out in public domain, will it not further increase caste tensions? Won’t all parties then discard developmental agendas and only focus on getting caste-wise vote calculations right?

    No, I don’t feel that caste census will either embolden caste identity or increase caste tensions. As far as development is concerned, it will happen only when people of all castes do well. 

    My understanding is that caste census is not only social but also economic. When industrialisation gained pace in India, the lives of balutedars (i.e. those involved in the caste based professions) like kumbhar (potters), sutar (carpenters), teli (oil pressers), etc. got disrupted. I call this disruption an 'economic genocide.' A caste census will help assess the present socio-economic status of such communities. 

    When it comes to the question of whether the numbers should be put in public- I am a votary of disclosing it in its totality. There are certain dominant castes, the leaders of which keep making baseless claims about their numerical super-strength. A caste census will precisely break such myths that have been deliberately circulated among masses for decades now.

    We saw that your Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) while putting out the lists of its candidates had also declared their castes. This is unprecedented in Maharashtra’s politics or for that matter even across India. What was the reasoning behind it?

    The ultimate aim of our party is to break the stranglehold of certain caste groups on politics and make it more equitable. We have declared the castes of our candidates to show that we are giving an equal opportunity to everyone.

    Others like those in Mahayuti or MVA won’t do this because the moment they do that it will become clear that most of their candidates are from the Maratha caste alone. That too, rich Marathas and not the poor ones among them.

    Since you mention the Maratha caste, you had publicly declared support to the demands for OBC reservation to Marathas made by the agitation leader Manoj Jarange.

    Although Jarange claims to be fighting only for the needy ones among Marathas, instances of him referring to government officials especially those from the OBC castes in a derogatory way by calling them by their caste names signalled a supremacist attitude. Yet, you support him. Why?

    See politics is a chess-board game. Here you have to do everything to win and we (i.e. VBA) are here to win. 

    When it comes to Maratha agitation leader Manoj Jarange, his agitation indirectly caused two good things.

    Firstly, the OBCs who weren’t politically aware, all of a sudden realised the changing situation and came together after Marathas started demanding OBC reservation. Secondly, within the Marathas, a large number of poor Marathas who did not have a platform to raise their grievances, through Jarange’s agitation, they got a platform. So the awareness has now increased on both sides i.e. among the Marathas as well as the OBCs.

    But there is chatter on the ground that the Jarange-led Maratha agitation is a clever ploy of the rich Maratha leaders.

    Some sections among the lay masses feel that Maratha leaders from the MVA have propped up Jarange and provided a space for the poorer Marathas to vent out their anger in a way that it doesn’t harm their interests. What do you think of it?

    I don’t know about others, but there is one party which has been giving representation to the poor Marathas and that is our party- the VBA. 

    To this the BJP as well as Congress cadre whom I spoke to here in Akola say Prakash Ambedkar’s support to Jarange is strategic. They say that your support move is guided with motivations to win this Lok Sabha seat with Maratha-Kunbi support who have a sizeable population here. Is this assumption correct?

    Our party (i.e. VBA) has always had a support base among Marathas and Kunbis, especially so in Akola. Not just for furthering my or our party’s political interests, I genuinely feel that the poor Marathas who don’t have Kunbi certificates should get one.

    But then Maratha agitation leader Jarange is asking for blanket distribution of OBC-Kunbi certificates to all Marathas. Apart from this, there is also no clarity on how he intends to prove ‘social backwardness’ of a dominant caste group like that of the Marathas.

    I have told him (i.e. Manoj Jarange) consistently that he should more often use words like 'garajvant (i.e. one in need) Maratha' in his demands and speeches. Since past few months, I feel he has taken our suggestion seriously.

    As far as proving social backwardness is concerned, it can be proven if the state government and the Backward Classes Commission make a sincere effort. 

    Even Congress has been pitching the idea of caste census. Their senior leader Rahul Gandhi has highlighted it prominently through his recently concluded Bharat Jodo ‘Nyay’ Yatra. What do you think of it?

    Considering that they have relied always on candidates from the dominant castes, it is hypocritical of them to come out now and ask for a caste census.

    You won the Lok Sabha elections from Akola first in 1998 and last in 1999. Congress had supported you back then. In the subsequent years there seems to have been a fall out.

    This time you seem to have made all efforts to be a part of the Congress led-INDI alliance but then you had to leave. Why don’t VBA and Congress get along well?

    You should ask this question to the Congress leaders. They are in a better position to talk on this.

    Congress candidate Dr Abhay Patil here and the MVA cadre have been calling out the nepotism in the BJP since the Mahayuti candidate here, Anup Dhotre, is the son of BJP's sitting four-time Member of Parliament Sanjay Dhotre. 

    When I talk to the BJP candidate Dhotre's supporters, they say even VBA is no exception to this considering that your son Sujat might succeed you in future. What do you think of dynasty politics and the nepotism charge on you?

    If you look at Mahayuti candidates and those in MVA, large number of them with in their coalitions and in some cases across the coalition, are related to each other.

    When you as a voter are presented with a choice of choosing between two dynasts but not related to each other or those from the same families but in opposing parties, can we call this democracy? According to me this is nothing but mobocracy, a charade of democracy.

    As far as their allegation regarding me is concerned, it is baseless because my son is not contesting any kind of election as of now.

    In a recent VBA rally in this (i.e. Akola) Lok Sabha constituency, local AIMIM leader Abdul Inamdar declared support to your candidature in Akola on behalf of his party. You have said in your speeches that BJP is a communal party. If that’s the case, AIMIM is no different. Don’t you feel uneasy with such a party supporting you?

    It is actually their (i.e. AIMIM) party chief Asaduddin Owaisi himself who has declared support to VBA here (i.e. in Akola), Inamdar has only reiterated it.

    As far as an alliance with AIMIM or anyone else is concerned, we (i.e. VBA) have decided not to ally with anyone this time. Their support to us here is external.

    If this is the case here in Akola, VBA is yet to confirm the candidature of Afsar Khan in Chatrapati Sambhajinagar. Khan was expected to be your party's face there against AIMIM's candidate Imtiyaz Jaleel.

    Is there some tacit understanding between VBA and AIMIM to avoid fight in key seats? 

    We are yet to take a call on the Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar seat.

    AIMIM candidate there and sitting MP Imtiyaz Jaleel has maintained a stance of not celebrating liberation of Marathwada from Nizam rule and still refers to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar as Aurangabad, how do you see this? Also, have you ever spoken with Owaisi senior regarding the provocative statements made by his sibling Akbaruddin Owaisi?

    I feel he (i.e. Imtiyaz Jaleel) is damaging himself and his party by maintaining such a stance. With regards to the other question of yours (i.e. provocative statements of Akbaruddin Owaisi), we haven’t spoken about it.

    In the past, Akola was one of the major cotton trading centres in western India. This is not the case anymore. What do you think of it? Also does the VBA have any action plan for developing Akola?

    I believe that the cotton industry should be revived in Akola and I will make efforts for the same.

    The farmers here have been shifting from cotton to other crops because of increasing soil salinity issue and non-implementation of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for cotton. For the former, a scientific action plan is needed to alleviate the issue of increasing salinity.

    Fortunately, Akola is a major broad-gauge railway junction, there is a lot of potential to develop industries here.

    What is your ultimate goal of being in politics?

    My aim is simple- helping people. Being the grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, I have a legacy of striving for social justice and helping masses. Many politicians are afraid of this legacy. I will continue to help people irrespective of their identities.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as ₹2999. Click here for more details.

    Staff Writer at Swarajya

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