In his parting letter to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Dalit MP Udit Raj listed some of the reasons due to which he was denied the ticket from North West Delhi seat to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He claims that he has been adjudged the ‘best performing MP’ by a leading magazine in its survey and his chances of winning again were good based on internal surveys commissioned by the party. But the BJP stayed quiet about its decision until 1.30 pm on 23 April. That was hardly two hours before the deadline for candidates to file their nominations. This delay signified that it was probably not an easy decision for the BJP either.
So, what explains the decision of the BJP to dump Udit Raj, one of the rare prominent and vocal Dalit faces of the party? Here are some likely factors that tilted the scales against him.
Udit Raj himself has listed four reasons that might have angered the party leadership.
- He had opposed the dilution of the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and raised his voice against the “torture of SC-STs” for participating in the Bharat Bandh agitation.
- He also opposed the 13-point roster notified by the UGC for university recruitment.
- He had demanded reservation for SC/ST in the judiciary, which he said was dominated by the so-called upper castes whose members hold bias against those from the lower castes.
- He had supported young women’s entry in the Sabarimala temple.
It is the stuff of mainstream politics around the world that it co-opts independent voices from the ground because of the community mobilising they have done for years. But once they enter the political party, they must defang their voice and fall in line. If they continue to speak freely, they become inconvenient.
Before joining politics Ram Raj aka Udit Raj, a JNU alumnus, was an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer. While in service, he started unionising SC/ST employees and later formed the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, which he still heads. Before quitting the service, in a mass congregation in Delhi, he left Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. That is how Ram Raj became Udit Raj. He had also formed his own Justice Party but it never took off. During the Jan Lokpal movement, led by another ex-IRS officer Arvind Kejriwal (now Delhi chief minister and founder of Aam Aadmi Party), Udit Raj demanded reservation for the SCs, STs and OBCs in the proposed institution of Lokpal, and even led an agitation to make it Bahujan Lokpal. He provided a counterpoint to Kejriwal and his AAP, a reason the BJP approached him. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he joined the BJP, contested from North West Delhi constituency and won.
Interestingly, Udit Raj never dissolved the Confederation of SC/ST Employees Unions and continued speaking up for the community. During his tenure as a parliamentarian, he did not hesitate to oppose some of the social policies of the BJP-RSS. He tried to retain his core constituency while remaining in the BJP. It is now clear that this tightrope walk would not have been easy for him, and could have led to the frayed relations with the party.
Udit Raj is not alone
It is no coincidence that in the last few months, the BJP has lost the company of several others like Udit Raj.
Among the first to part ways, or rather be thrown out of the NDA coalition, was former minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party leader Upendra Kushwaha. The leader’s resignation letter looks like a mirror image of the one written recently by Udit Raj. According to Upendra Kushwaha, he was raising the issues of the UGC roster, caste census, backlog of quota in government positions, and reservation in the judiciary. Kushwaha’s position too became untenable and he had to finally quit. The RLSP leader is now part of the secular mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in Bihar.
BJP MP from Bahraich (Uttar Pradesh), Savitri Bai Phule raised similar issues, and was even detained by the police while protesting against the UGC roster. She had left the BJP saying that the idea of social Justice was being subverted under the BJP’s rule. She too finally left the saffron party and joined the Congress.
Another sitting MP Ashok Kumar Dohre (from Etawah, Uttar Pradesh), alleged that the SCs and the STs were falsely implicated in the Bharat Bandh-related violence. Dohre too has quit the BJP and joined the Congress. Chote Lal Kharwar, MP from Robertsganj, has also been denied the ticket. He had earlier this month written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about caste bias within the BJP and had also complained about UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Laxmi Narayan Yadav, another MP known for his advocacy of social justice and raising questions about caste census data, did not get the ticket to contest the elections. Other names in the list include Sunil Gaikwad, MP from Latur (Maharashtra), Nana Patole, MP from Bhandara-Gondia (Maharashtra), Subhash Patel, OBC MP from Khargone (Madhya Pradesh), Bodh Singh Bhagat, MP from Balaghat (Madhya Pradesh). Incidentally, all of them were vocal on the issues of caste and social justice. According to Newsclick, the BJP has denied tickets to nearly 50 per cent sitting MPs belonging to the SC and ST communities.
Is there a pattern in the denial of tickets?
On the surface of it, yes. But people could point that some of the upper caste BJP MPs were also denied tickets this time. These include prominent leaders like Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. For them, however, the rationale was that they have become very old to remain engaged in day-to-day politics. Moreover, the BJP relegates them to the old age home concept, rightly known as the Margdarshak Mandal.
If the BJP does not have leaders from SC, STs and OBCs, then who will speak for them? The more apt question will be, does BJP need leaders from subaltern groups who can speak for subalterns. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had posed this question in a different context and very famously asked – “Can the subaltern speak?” In the present political context of the internal politics of the BJP, the answer is – Yes, subalterns like Udit Raj, Savitri Bai Phule, Upendra Kushwaha can speak, but it all depends on whether the party will let them.
Just before the elections, the BJP took a steep turn in favour of the Upper Casts by introducing 10 per cent EWS quota for social groups not covered by any other quota and also inducted nine upper caste joint secretaries through lateral entry, subverting the provisions of reservations. These subaltern leaders, who have a penchant for speaking for the underclass, are inconvenient for the BJP. So, they are not getting tickets to contest elections. There are other SC, ST, OBC candidates but the pertinent question will be: can they speak on issues that matter to the community?
Incidentally, other than Prakash Ambedkar, no prominent and nationally known Dalit leader is contesting Lok Sabha election this time. Ram Vilas Paswan will most probably be inducted in Rajya Sabha as promised by the BJP. Ramdas Athwale is already in Rajya Sabha. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Mayawati is not contesting the elections and now Udit Raj is also out. We have very few leaders to represent the voice of around 200 million Dalits and the 17th Lok Sabha may not have any of them on the floor of the Lower House.