In a few days from now, the 17th Lok Sabha will be constituted. And one unique feature of the new Lok Sabha would be that it will not have any vocal Dalit leader of national stature. Only notable exception is likely to be Prakash Ambedkar — the three-time MP and grandson of Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar who is fighting a three-cornered battle in the Solapur constituency in Maharashtra.
The most popular Dalit face of Indian politics, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Mayawati, is not contesting the Lok Sabha elections. The last time she had contested a Lok Sabha poll was in 2004. Another prominent Dalit leader and once a contender for the post of prime minister, Ram Vilas Paswan is also not in the fray. Paswan, who has won as many as nine Lok Sabha elections, has opted for a Rajya Sabha seat this time instead. His shift to the Upper House is part of the seat-sharing agreement between his Lok Janshakti Party, and the allies BJP and JDU in Bihar. Republican Party of India (RPI) leader and a former Dalit Panther, Ramdas Athawale is already in the Rajya Sabha, courtesy the BJP, and won’t fight the Lok Sabha election. It is the same with the Congress party’s most prominent Dalit face, PL Punia, a Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP made its Dalit leader Udit Raj, the vocal MP from North West Delhi, wait too long for the ticket only to deny it at the last moment. The party thus scuttled all chances of him contesting the Lok Sabha election, not even as an Independent candidate. Udit Raj later joined the Congress, saying the BJP wants its Dalit leaders to remain ‘deaf and dumb’. Other articulate Dalit voices like D Raja, Prof BL Mungekar and Narendra Jadhav are also members of the Rajya Sabha and won’t be entering the 17th Lok Sabha.
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Only ‘reserved’ representation
But it’s not as if no Dalit leader is contesting the Lok Sabha elections this time. Constitutional provisions guarantee 84 members in the Lok Sabha since these many constituencies in the country are reserved for candidates belonging to the Scheduled Castes (there are 47 other seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes). Moreover, Dalits can contest the general election from unreserved constituencies. But even if no Dalit candidate gets elected from an unreserved constituency, there will still be 84 Dalit MPs in the Lower House.
Will that not be sufficient for the Dalit representation?
No, it won’t. The proceedings of the 16th Lok Sabha show that barring a few Dalit MPs, no one raised Dalit issues in Parliament or spoke up on matters concerning the community in the media during the Modi rule. For instance, on the Supreme Court diluting stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, other than Udit Raj and Ram Vilas Paswan, none spoke up. But they spoke only when the Modi government, sensing the anger of Dalits as demonstrated in the 2 April 2018 Bharat Bandh and the ensuing violence, brought a bill to nullify the impacts of the Supreme Court order. Parliament passed the bill in August, restoring the original provisions of the SC/ST Act.
Even when the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a notification which had a direct impact on the recruitment of SC/ST/OBC teachers in central universities and colleges, almost all Dalit MPs kept quiet. As anger built up over the UGC roster, the Modi government was forced to promulgate an ordinance to correct the anomaly. Dalit MPs’ silence was similarly acute in cases of atrocities, like the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula (Dalits have called it an ‘institutional murder’) or the 2016 Una flogging incident, whose victims continue to seek justice from the government by staging hunger strike to this day.
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This leads to a dichotomous situation — vocal Dalits in college campuses and on the streets, and silent Dalits in Parliament.
Why is there a need for articulate Dalit MPs in Parliament to raise issues on behalf of the community? Can’t this be taken care of by the non-Dalit MPs? No, not in a democracy which is all about representation. When only the designated ‘wise men’ can speak, it is a plutocracy — the antithesis of democracy.
One possible explanation for why Dalit MPs don’t speak up for the community can be found in the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate during the second Round Table Conference (1931) and in the Poona Pact (1932). It was about the method of representation, especially for the depressed classes. As demanded by the untouchables and also according to the scheme of the British India government, Dalits (regarded as untouchables at the time) could have likely had separate electorate in the assembly elections, where they would have elected their own representatives.
But Mahatma Gandhi was opposed to this and had a vehement disagreement with Babasaheb Ambedkar on the issue. Gandhi went on a fast unto death to oppose the separate electorate for the untouchables, forcing Ambedkar to a compromise. In the Poona Pact that was subsequently signed, a provision was made under which some constituencies were reserved for the Dalits with voting rights given to all citizens. And this is how the proposal empowering the community to elect its own voice was scuttled.
Why reserved constituency is bad for Dalits
Not a single constituency in India has more than 50 per cent Dalit population, which means it’s always the non-Dalits who decide the fate of Dalit candidates in reserved constituencies. A vocal or assertive Dalit leader has the least chance of winning from such seats. To be re-elected, a Dalit MP must be careful not to antagonise the non-Dalits, and one way of ensuring this is by remaining silent in Parliament.
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One of the finest intellectuals of his times, Babasaheb Ambedkar knew this very well. He lost the Lok Sabha elections twice — in 1952 from Bombay North Central and in 1954 from Bhandara seat (now Bhandara-Gondiya) in a bypoll. Ambedkar died in 1956 without being elected to the Lok Sabha.
BSP founder Kanshi Ram tried to evolve a mechanism of forging alliance with backward castes and minorities to break this logjam, but received only limited success. We are still stuck in a situation where a party like the BJP, which many would consider as anti-Dalit or pro-upper caste, wins a large number of reserved seats.
Importance of articulate Dalit leaders in Lok Sabha
The Lower House is where the real power of the Indian democracy resides. Only the Lok Sabha has powers on financial matters. These powers are exercised through three committees – the estimates committee, public accounts committee, and committee on public undertakings. Arvind Kumar, a Political Science scholar pursuing his PhD on inequality from University of London, had collected data for these committees and concluded that Dalits MPs are hardly present or participate in the proceedings of these committees.
So, we have a situation where around 20 crore Dalit population, or every sixth Indian, has almost no say on how public money is used. This is a cause for alarm that should warrant serious deliberations. Can the separate electorate for the Dalits be a viable solution? The nation must decide.