The 2019 Lok Sabha election verdict was a shocker for most opposition parties in north India. In the Modi wave 2.0, the claimants to social justice politics suffered the biggest setback.
The big question is – Does the politics of social justice have a future in 2019?
This question was first posed when the BJP crushed the SP and the BSP – both the parties were born out of the social justice movement – by registering a mammoth win in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.
However, many at that time felt that it was a temporary setback for the two regional parties and a political realignment ahead of 2019, in the form of gathbandhan, can help them regain the lost ground. But this seemingly formidable alliance could win just 15 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
A similar pattern was seen in Bihar, where the RJD failed to win a single seat. In Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh too, parties that espouse social justice as their core ideology were missing from the scene. This total debacle of parties associated with social justice politics demands a thorough analysis.
There can be two reasons for such results. First, people (voters) no longer believe in politics of social justice and that’s why it is dead. Second, there are some serious problems with the parties and the leaders associated with the politics of social justice and these limitations are now coming to the fore.
Losing people’s trust
Several movements launched by Dalit, tribal and backward communities in the last few years are proof that public resistance to social injustice continues to date. But people no longer trust the self-proclaimed champions of social justice (read political parties/politicians) to lead their movements.
The protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the flogging of Dalits in Una, the Saharanpur unrest, and the all-India strikes on 2 April last year and 5 March this year were led by people and not any political party. It is another matter that established political parties later tried taking credit for these mass movements.
Currently, there are several small organisations leading social justice movements in their areas/localities, but they lack national reach. Instead of encouraging them, big political parties see them as a threat.
RJD & politics of self-preservation
Let us analyse the three big political parties in north India who claim to be champions of social justice.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had once challenged the status quo and was synonymous with social justice politics in Bihar for decades. But in the post-Lalu Yadav era, people have started asking if social justice means self-preservation and rule of one family, in this case Rabri, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav.
The social justice movement demands participation of new faces and new communities in order to widen its base. Opportunities must be created for new leaders to take charge, but this never happened in Bihar.
The RJD’s stunning loss in Bihar has presented the party an opportunity to introspect and evaluate how and why it lost people’s support.
Problems with BSP
Now, let us talk about Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its growing alienation from its core support group.
The BSP has improved its tally compared to its 2014 performance, but it is still way below expectations. Bagging just 10 seats despite an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) raises question about its future. The BSP’s biggest cause for concern is its growing distance from social agitations. Party founder Kanshi Ram used to tour across the country, spreading Ambedkar’s ideology. He worked extensively to ensure justice to persecuted Dalits. All that is now a thing of the past.
The lack of inner-party democracy is another problem with the Mayawati-led party. The BSP today has few leaders who can be its face at the state and national level. Such is the situation that the BSP doesn’t have enough spokespersons to present its point of view in TV debates.
Its another big worry is the constant erosion in its non-Jatav Dalit vote base.
Samajwadi Party’s troubles
The Samajwadi Party (SP), which too claims to follow the social justice politics template in the region, is staring at an existential crisis.
The public perception in Uttar Pradesh is that while Akhilesh Yadav performed well as a chief minister, his party’s ‘pro-Yadav’ image hurt him.
The SP also made the big mistake of equating development with politics. Delivering on development is the duty of any government, and no party can make it a political point.
Further, the SP and the BSP have had bitter fights with each other over the last two decades. Dalits and OBCs could not trust the alliance and the election results point to this sentiment.
As big parties had to bite the dust this time, little-known Bharatiya Tribal Party is slowly emerging as a serious challenger in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Elected voices let people down
Here, it is important to highlight that the primary responsibility of furthering the cause of social justice lies with the MPs and MLAs elected from the reserved constituencies. On that count, these elected representatives have miserably failed, and unthinkingly followed their party line.
Ambedkar had to fight with Gandhi to ensure Parliament and state assemblies have reserved seats. But the incompetence of the elected representatives from these seats is disappointing. At the same time, independent and honest voices on social justice are tactfully assimilated into bigger parties. Later, such voices are not allowed to speak up.
There is an urgent need for new and credible organisations, which can give a fresh push to the politics of social justice in India. Social and cultural transformation should be their primary responsibility.
As long as there is discrimination based on caste and class, the politics of social justice will remain relevant in India. This politics, however, needs to feel the pulse of people’s movements and struggles on the streets.
The author is visiting Professor at department of Indology at Ankara University. Views are personal. Read the article in Hindi here