On 18 April, ten out of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha constituencies will vote in the second phase of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. These polls mark the electoral debut of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, or VBA—an alliance of Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups—which is contesting all 48 seats in the state. The alliance is spearheaded by Prakash Ambedkar, the president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, and joined by Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or AIMIM. Ambedkar, who is the grandson of BR Ambedkar, is contesting from two constituencies—Akola and Solapur—both of which will vote on Thursday.
An untested political alliance, which has nevertheless drawn huge crowds at its campaign rallies, the VBA may upend the caste arithmetic of the big four in the state—the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress. Dalits and Muslims together account for almost twenty five percent of the state’s population. The VBA also reflects Owaisi’s attempts to bring together the Muslim and the Dalit vote. Many analysts see this as Owaisi’s attempt to expand his and AIMIM’s appeal beyond their stronghold of Hyderabad and to a wider base of the electorate. The only time that AIMIM won an election outside of Hyderabad was in the 2014 state assembly elections in Maharashtra, when it bagged two seats.
In the following extract from “The Seeker,” The Caravan’s September 2016 cover story, Neyaz Farooquee traces Owaisi’s history of courting Dalit voters, his attempts to create alliances with other Bahujan parties and extend the presence of AIMIM to other states with significant Muslim and Dalit populations.
One way Asaduddin is pushing the frontiers of Muslim politics is by courting Dalit voters. In the Maharashtra election in 2014, the AIMIM tried out a new slogan: “Jai Bheem, Jai Meem”—“Bheem” for the Dalit hero Bhimrao Ambedkar, and “Meem,” phonetically, for MIM. I saw a poster with the same slogan on my visit to Darussalam. Before the Bihar election, Asaduddin told a newspaper, “I definitely see a future where Muslims and Dalits should come together socially and politically.” And this January, after the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on the University of Hyderabad campus, he was one of the first politicians to visit protesting students at the university, and also Vemula’s mother.
The AIMIM has some history of Dalit engagement. It fielded Dalit candidates during the days of Asaduddin’s father and grandfather, but this was rare and largely for appearances. In the late 1980s and 1990s, though, when the party had the numbers to appoint the mayor of Hyderabad, three of the five people it elevated to the post were Dalits. Under Asaduddin’s leadership, it has continued to field Dalit candidates in small but noticeable numbers—especially in municipal elections, where they have had some success. In assembly elections—as in Maharashtra, where it fielded Dalits in five of the 24 constituencies it contested—no Dalit has yet won on an AIMIM ticket, even in the party’s home state.