The UP election results earlier this year signaled a growing support among the Dalits for the BJP. This was followed by NDA fielding Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate, forcing the opposition to field another Dalit, Meira Kumar, as his rival. Then last week, Mayawati resigned from the Rajya Sabha, protesting against what she said was the attitude of the ruling party to suppress her voice raising Dalit issues. As parties from across the spectrum aggressively target and woo the Dalit community, what is the future of exclusive appeals by smaller parties? Is the space for Dalit identity politics and Dalit-first parties shrinking? We asked Sudhindra Bhadoria, Jignesh Mevani, Dr. Udit Raj, Sanjay Nirupam, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Shiv Visvanathan and Amit Ahuja.
Mere tokenism of a Dalit President doesn’t compare with the lifelong work and struggle of Mayawati – Sudhindra Bhadoria, senior BSP leader.
The story of Dalit oppression and atrocities has been a story of a thousand years. To say that anyone would rise all of a sudden and take up that space is not possible.
Baba Saheb (Ambedkar), the biggest Dalit icon of the 20th century gave a new consciousness to break the chains of slavery through political empowerment. During the freedom struggle, he called for freedom with equality. In later years, it was Manyawar Kanshi Ram and Behen Mayawati-ji who worked tirelessly, raising the voices of Dalits across north India, particularly in UP and the surrounding provinces. In the late 1980s, Bahujan Samaj Party became the most important vehicle of Dalit consciousness and empowerment. Both worked to rally around not only Dalits but other oppressed and marginalised sections of the society under one umbrella.
Therefore, to say the BSP is a Dalit-only party is a complete misunderstanding of the party’s ideology. I agree that Dalits are at the core of the party but BSP is a bigger movement.
Ever since the Modi Government has taken charge at the Centre, there has been an increase in atrocities on Dalits and minorities. Mayawati-ji has been constantly raising the Rohith Vemula suicide issue, torture of Dalits in Una and the sufferings of Dalits in Saharanpur. When she tried to raise the issue in Parliament, the treasury benches did not allow her. She had no choice but to resign. Modi and the BJP are perceived as the biggest exploiters of Dalits and minorities. Mere tokenism by making a Dalit President won’t garner any support as compared to the lifelong work and struggle of Mayawati-ji.
There is no Dalit leadership today, that is why Chandra Shekhar Azad and I are working for mass mobilisation — Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist.
Before talking about Dalit-first parties, some thought should be given to Dalit leadership too. The so-called Dalit rights champions like Ramdas Athawale, Udit Raj or Ram Vilas Paswan, have all sided with the RSS-BJP combine for their vested interests.
Someone like Mayawati got a chance to rule the state four times, but did nothing except iconising herself. There is no Dalit leadership or party today, that is why you see someone like Jignesh Mevani or Chandra Shekhar Azad working for mass mobilisation in different parts of the country.
Dalit-first parties have confined themselves to Ambedkar, Jai Bheem and Namo Buddhaya. Putting up an Ambedkar statue won’t help. Dalits need to fight for their livelihood and then comes honour. The established Dalit leadership of the country has failed to address real issues.
I agree there is a decline in these parties but saying that they have completely lost is also an overstatement. They still have an identity and cadre which, if utilised for real issues would put them back at the helm. The BJP brand of Dalit politics is nothing but a shameless attempt by an organisation which supports ‘Manusmriti’. Ram Nath Kovind is a Dalit but his primary identity is of a BJP man. In 2002, immediately after Gujarat riots, BJP made Kalam a president. This time in the wake of rising atrocities on Dalits, they have chosen Kovind.
A new breed of Dalit leadership is emerging today in different parts of the country. The day these movements come together to take form of a large group, you could see emergence of a Dalit-first party again, which would focus on caste annihilation, jobs and livelihood.
The dilution in exclusive Dalit politics has to be seen in the context of the phenomenal rise of BJP — Dr. Udit Raj, BJP MP
Getting Ram Nath Kovind elected as President of India makes it seem that suddenly Dalits politics has gained currency. Some talk that the era of exclusive Dalit leader-based parties’ days are gone and that every political party has started focusing on Dalits. But it is only a perception and not a reality that there was ever an era of Dalits identity-based parties.
The Republican Party of India, founded by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, succeeded to some extent in Maharashtra. The Bahujan Samaj Party made significant impact in UP and in some other states, however, it is short-lived compared to other political parties like the Congress, BJP and Communists. It is just hyperbole to say that the era of exclusive Dalit politics identity is shrinking but it is true that there is some dilution. It should be seen in the context of the phenomenal rise of BJP and in that way every party has been rubbed hard.
Out of 29 states and seven union territories, how many places have Dalit-based party emerged in? Chances are slim in the near future also. In a caste-based society like ours, upper castes will not accept the leadership of Dalit politics as the basis of party objectives and programmes, unless they have personal gains.
I too floated Indian Justice Party and could not succeed to make it on caste lines. However, society is undergoing key transformations and things may change.
Political empowerment, not political opportunism, of Dalits is key – Sanjay Nirupam, president, Mumbai Congress Committee
Bringing in a Dalit President, the BJP might have used the easy route of tokenism to try and project itself as a party that is inclusive but it has been and continues to be a party of the upper castes. What the BJP forgets is that the man they call ‘Chatur Baniya’ was the one who first brought Dalits into mainstream politics.
Babasaheb Amebedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation that later became the Republican Party of India, was the first all-Dalit party in the country. However, it was the Congress party that led the process of Dalit empowerment for decades – a fact that many overlook.
The RPI could never survive on its own and had to be a part of the Congress umbrella to remain politically relevant. Today, Ramdas Athawale’s RPI and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP are part of the BJP alliance.
In the mid-80s the movement picked up in UP with the rise of BSP under Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. She is now set to join the grand opposition alliance. What happens to the ‘only Dalit’ agenda of BSP has to be seen. But the political focus on Dalit issues will survive.
The BJP might make pathetic attempts at laughing off visits of Rahul Gandhi to Dalit homes, but Amit Shah and other BJP leaders have copied it – the only difference is the Dalit homes are cleaned and air-conditioned before their arrival.
If the BJP really believed in inclusive growth, Rohit Vemula’s Ph.D. stipend would not have been stopped or Dalits would not have been openly flogged in Una and Saharanpur.
In the ‘New India’, Dalit-first as just a tagline won’t work. Political empowerment, not political opportunism, of Dalits is key.
The problem is not Dalit politics, but that the old political leadership appears tired –– Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit entrepreneur and columnist
While India’s silent revolution continues causing rise of an underclass from within the upper caste, Dalits are freer today than at any point of our known history. Dalits are now confronting the oppressors, it is no longer a one-way traffic.
Growing in confidence and economic freedom, and with an articulate and outspoken middle class, Dalits are likely to face similar dilemmas that Blacks once faced in the United States – to join the mainstream with an assertion of their African American identity or confront and join the mainstream on their own terms. Blacks chose the latter.
Dalits in India are joining and confronting the mainstream at the same time. But a new phase of Ambedkarite radicalisation of Dalits has also taken root. The upwardly mobile Dalit middle class is buying apartments in urban condominiums, but their caste pride is deeper, and assertion louder. For the time being, space for Dalit platforms might appear to be shrinking, but it might expand like a storm. In recent years, Youtube/Facebook-based Dalit channels have evolved- Dalit Camera/National Dastak Dalit Dastak, Bahujan News for instance.
Watch these Dalit channels and see how different they are in understanding, analysing, and explaining events that are unfolding around us. Within the Dalit media channels, there is a complete rejection of the newly elected President of India, Ram Nath Kovind.
The political mainstream’s rush to embrace Dalit support is triggered by the basic premise that Dalits now matter more. Although Dalits are about 17% of India’s population, they are 18 to 20% if we overlook North East and Central India. Dalits are determined voters, usually voting higher than the average voter turnout. Dalits also tend to vote in one direction.
The problem is not Dalit politics, but it is that the old political leadership appears tired. It would be therefore, too early to make a judgment on the Dalit identity-based mobilisation, platforms and politics.
The New Ambedkar: Symbols and political memories are up for reshuffles – Shiv Visvanathan, professor, Jindal Global Law School.
Politicians and political icons like film heroes cannot be typecast for too long a time. They discover that someone else has stolen their lines and even the audience that they took for granted has moved away. Symbolism today is dynamic and has transitioned from the fixity of iconography to the flexibility of brand. Gandhi, Nehru, Patel are being re-read to be used instrumentally by other groups. These names are no longer the monopoly of any single party. If BJP can appropriate Patel, and Modi can snuggle into a KVIC calendar, the popular mind senses that symbols, political memories are up for reshuffles. In a sad and ironic way, it is happening to Ambedkar.
The first signs of this came when a Dalit-First party like BSP got defeated in UP elections — with Dalits moving to other parties, including the BJP. The old discourse of victimology gave way to a middle class, mobile India dreaming of consumerism. Dalits could not be indifferent to the epidemic and the opportunity to place bets on new groups and leaders. Mayawati, considered a Dalit-Durga incarnate, stated her irrelevance by quitting Rajya Sabha.
The recent Presidential elections produced the necessary confusion. Ambedkar as a legacy was split and apportioned over three parties. The BJP elects a Dalit WOG committed to the RSS. The Congress sets up Meira Kumar to enact out the Congress Harijan of the Nehruvian era and CPM plays out Gopal Gandhi as the Gandhian Harijan to complete the triptych.
The message to the Dalit clan is that a Dalit-first party is fated to a short-lived career. The possibility of mixed constituencies appealing to wider issues might provide the logic of survival.
If Dalit votes get divided across parties, Dalits are more likely to benefit from policy continuity — Amit Ahuja, Associate Professor, University of California Santa Barbara, and author of “Mobilizing the Marginalized: Dalit movements and parties in India”.
The space for Dalit political parties is shrinking in India today, but this is not necessarily bad for Dalits’ interests.
Dalit parties need two things for electoral success. First, a high degree of party competition. Such an environment allows smaller, caste-based parties to succeed and find a place in coalition governments. The favorable environment of the 1990s provided by Congress’ decline and coalition governments at the center and many states has today been replaced by the less opportune environment of BJP- majority governments.
Second, the availability of Dalit electoral blocs. If Dalit parties cannot consolidate Dalit votes, they cannot attract good candidates or enter a favorable seat sharing arrangement in electoral alliances.
Today, even in North India, Dalits are asserting themselves outside political parties in ever increasing numbers and socially, Dalits are no longer deferential to others. These changes undermine Dalit electoral blocs. At the locality level, motivated by a desire for upward mobility, ambitious Dalits are willing to turn to different parties. Parties like the BJP that want to increase their vote share among Dalits are recruiting them as party workers. Parties have also come to realize that to woo Dalits, they have to honor their symbols like Dr. Ambedkar. Now if all parties use identity politics, then what is so novel about Dalit parties?
If the Dalit votes come to be divided across parties, Dalits are more likely to benefit from policy continuity. Experience from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra shows when different parties seek Dalit support and when power changes hands, Dalit welfare is not affected. By contrast, when Dalit votes are consolidated behind a Dalit party, like in UP, Dalit welfare is completely dependent on the presence of their party in government.