Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet reflects his slogan Sabka Saath Sabka Vishwas in the diversity audit. It has more Dalit and tribal ministers than possibly any Congress party-led government of the past or even the previous NDA governments.
And yet The Times of India put out a tweet this morning claiming that in the newly sworn-in cabinet, upper castes have gotten “big chunk of ministerial berths”. Appalled, I responded to the tweet listing the names of ministers from Dalit and tribal communities.
Either the media moguls have probably not yet understood the underlying message in the landslide 2019 election verdict or they are still reluctant to come out of their bubbles. The BJP has successfully consolidated the lower castes in its fold owing to multiple factors. Representation to the vulnerable groups is one of the cardinal demands of the subaltern leaders and intellectuals. This cannot happen overnight. Systemic and institutional marginalisation over the last seven decades in universities and other public places have left an indelible impact on the subaltern mind. The idea of empowerment stems from engagement and they can effectively engage with those who can empathise with their cause, with one of their own.
The Congress, when it led the coalition of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre, did have leaders like Sushil Kumar Shinde and Kumari Selja among others who were there to listen to the Dalits and their concerns. But the overarching system of patronage in the Congress party meant that it did not have a constant model of interaction. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has kept the momentum when it comes to engaging with the Dalit community.
With old timers like Ram Vilas Paswan (consumer affairs minister), Thawar Chand Gehlot (social justice and empowerment minister), Ramdas Athawale (MoS social justice), Arjun Ram Meghwal (MoS parliamentary affairs), and freshers like Rattan Lal Kataria (MoS jal shakti and social justice) and former bureaucrat Som Parkash (MoS commerce and industry), Dalits will find sufficient windows to voice their concerns with the Modi government. Arjun Munda, who retains his post of tribal affairs minister, is a proven administrator, officiating in the past as the second chief minister of Jharkhand.
In fact, the BJP has ignored the upper castes in order to accommodate leaders from vulnerable sections. Another tribal Member of Parliament Renuka Singh Saruta has been made a minister of state despite repeated attempts by another lady MP from the state, Saroj Pandey, to get into the cabinet.
Not only Dalit and tribal communities, representation from other communities is also enormous in Modi’s second cabinet. Nityanand Rai from Bihar (MoS home), Prahlad Singh Patel from Madhya Pradesh (MoS, independent charge, culture), Rao Inderjit Singh from Haryana (MoS, independent charge, statistics and planning), Rameshwar Teli from Assam (MoS food processing industries) and so on.
Allocation of portfolios
Previously, Dalits and tribal leaders were given traditional ministries like social justice and tribal affairs. This has significantly changed in the last five years. Departments like heavy industries and public enterprises, jal shakti, and food processing industries among others too have gone to Dalit and tribal leaders.
Statistical analysis would indicate the rising clout of backward leaders and a more humbling representation of upper caste leaders. The BJP has realised the power of representation. It will soon go on a representation blitzkrieg of sorts in other institutions like judiciary and academia as well. And it is not just about including them in numbers. It is also including their voices, expertise and experiences. It is only a matter of time that other political parties also realise this and move beyond from rhetorical representation to real representation.
The author is a Fellow at India Foundation and Assistant Professor at Patna University. He is a member of the state executive committee, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Bihar. Views are personal.