Mumbai: As seat-sharing talks between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena on the one hand the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party on the other reached a fever pitch, no one in the English or Marathi media heard the voice of former member of Parliament Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar and president of Bharatiya Republican Party and Bahujan Mahasangh.

Ambedkar predicted that the forthcoming legislative assembly election in Maharashtra would be the last for the so-called progressive left democratic (PLD) forces in the state.

Until 1990, various PLD parties like the Peasants and Workers Party, Socialist Party, Janata Party, Janata Dal, Republican Party of India, Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) occupied the opposition space in Maharashtra. Now, with these parties practically edged out of the political landscape, the media did not find it fit to report Ambedkar’s statement.

The numbers tell the story. In the last state assembly election held in 2009, these parties had a combined vote share of 5%, winning a mere eight seats in the 288-member legislative assembly. In contrast, in 1990, even as these parties were in decline, they scored 20% of all votes polled, winning 38 seats.

The 1990 election was a watershed election in Maharashtra’s politics. Right-wing BJP and Shiv Sena emerged as the major opposition bloc for the first time, winning 94 seats. Since then, it has been a downhill journey for PLD parties.

How did these parties, which held sway over the political landscape for a long time in the state, reach the brink of extinction? One can identify at least five reasons.

First, the implosion of the Republican Party of India (RPI). One major pillar which always held up the PLD forces was RPI. Thanks to towering egos of its leaders like Prakash Ambedkar, Ramdas Athavale, R.S. Gavai and Jogendra Kavade, the RPI is now split into 40-odd splinter groups. Out of these, only four groups led by the leaders mentioned above have survived in a few pockets.

Second, the loss of their electoral plank. The Janata Dal government led by Prime Minister V.P. Singh accepted the Mandal Commission report in 1990, extending reservations to Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government jobs, educational institutions and local self-government institutions. The PLD parties, who had championed the cause of OBCs all along should have been the natural claimants for the Mandal legacy. But this plank was appropriated by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra, which carefully cultivated OBC leaders in its ranks. As OBC leaders from the BJP like former union minister Gopinath Munde, former chairman of state legislative council N.S. Pharande, former state minister Anna Dange and former leader of opposition in legislative council Pandurang Phundkar, joined the front lines, the RPI fell into irrelevance.

Third, inconsistency in electoral alliances. The PLD parties’ on-again, off-again dalliances with Congress-NCP helped rivals. In one election, they would join hands with Congress and NCP to defeat ‘communal forces’ but in the very next election, they would contest alone, calling both Congress-NCP and BJP-Sena two sides of the same coin. In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, PWP and the four RPI groups mentioned above joined hands with Congress, jointly winning 38 out of 48 seats. This was considered a huge success, considering that in the 1996 Lok Sabha election, BJP-Sena had won 32 seats in Maharashtra. However, the same parties decided to go solo in 1999, helping BJP-Sena win 28 seats from Maharashtra. The Congress-NCP leadership took advantage of such erratic behaviour, poaching their ambitious mass base leaders, further weakening them.

Fourth, inconsistency on communal politics. To be fair, PLD parties were not the only ones in this game, which was also practised by the Congress and NCP. While they were vocal in criticizing Hindu communalism, they turned a blind eye to minority communalism. On the rare occasion they denounced it, their opposition was feeble.

Fifth, ageing leadership. With due respect to leaders like N.D. Patil and Govind Pansare, these octogenarians continue to be the face of PWP and CPI in Maharashtra, which have seen little infusion of young blood.

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