Congress general secretaries Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia with party’s Uttar Pradesh president Raj Babbar reached a small hospital in Meerut with their SPG entourage on March 13 to meet Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad — unmindful of the shock that awaited them. The security personnel and the doctors directed them right away towards the ‘super deluxe’ room on the second floor.
But to everyone’s surprise, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her colleagues were not allowed in.
Bhim Army volunteers told the Congress heavyweights they will have to wait. ‘Bhai’ will decide whether he wants to meet with them or not. As the Congress delegation waited in a room, the news spread through some web portals that the Bhim Army chief had refused to meet Priyanaka Gandhi Vadra. Although the three leaders were allowed in after a while and the meeting with Azad did take place in the presence of half a dozen Bhim Army workers, a certain message had already gone out.
One may label this behaviour of Chandrashekhar Azad as uncouth and boorish. But that would be only one way of looking at it. Many members of the Dalit community would have simply loved the way Azad supposedly dealt with his visitors. Dalits have been subjected to such behaviours and humiliations innumerable times and they see it as poetic justice when someone like Chandrashekhar Azad breaks the stereotype of meek gullible Dalit character like Kachra in Bollywood movie Lagaan (2001).
Moreover, this is the image Chandrashekhar Azad carries anyway – that of a new age young, rustic Dalit, riding a Bullet motorcycle and challenging the caste hierarchy in all possible manners. This latest incident will certainly add to the many folk lore associated with Chandrashekhar Azad, earlier known as Ravan, who has emerged as the new Dalit icon, similar to the Dalit Panthers of Mumbai.
The only difference between Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army and the Dalit Panthers seems to be this: while the Dalit Panthers rode to popularity in Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra, which have a long tradition of Dalit assertion, the Bhim Army is trying to organise itself in the badlands of western Uttar Pradesh, where the institution of caste still works in a very violent and menacing way.
So, why did Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decide to travel 100-odd kilometres to go to Meerut to meet Chandrashekhar Azad, and that too when the country is in election mode? She is the Congress’ in-charge of east UP. Surely, she must be keeping very busy these days!
She did for three reasons. One, the Congress wants to build new bridges with the Dalit community in the Uttar Pradesh. At the time of former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Dalits were considered to be the captive vote bank of the Congress. But with the advent of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Dalit community deserted the Congress and joined the Bahujan movement. After the rise of the BSP, the Congress lost the way to reach to the seat of power in Lucknow. Though the BSP’s rise may not be the only reason, but it has certainly contributed to the decline of the Congress, considering it never came to power at the Centre on its own after the election of 1984, which were held in unusual circumstances after the killing of Indira Gandhi.
The Congress wants to make inroads into the Dalit votebank, but any breakthrough continues to elude them. On the other hand, the BSP, despite being at its nadir, still gets around 20 per cent of the total votes in UP, most of which are of Dalits.
Nobody knows whether Chandrashekhar Azad will forge some type of understanding with the Congress or not, but Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has clearly given a signal to the community that she is ready for the long-awaited reconciliation and patch-up.
The second reason can be the ‘stubbornness‘ of BSP president Mayawati in forging any type of electoral understanding in Uttar Pradesh for the Lok Sabha elections.
Congress wants to have a grand alliance of political forces in UP to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from returning to power the second time. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had won 71 parliamentary seats in UP and with its ally Apna Dal, the National Democratic Alliance had bagged 73 seats. But before any negotiations could take place for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP announced their seat arrangement while keeping the Congress out of the equation. Mayawati does not want any other Dalit, or to be precise any other Jatav — the caste both she and Azad belong to — to take on the mantle. So, with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s visit to Azad, the Congress may have been putting pressure on her by hinting at aligning with the Bhim Army in order to make Mayawati agree to a restructuring of the UP gathbandhan with the Congress in it.
The third reason possibly lies in how Chandrashekhar Azad has emerged as the symbol of Dalit oppression during the Modi-Yogi regime.
Azad faces regular persecution by the UP police under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and was booked under National Security Act (NSA) in a case that began with Thakurs allegedly attacking and burning down Dalit homes in May 2017 in Saharanpur district’s Shabbirpur village. None of the Thakurs faced NSA charges while Chandrashekhar Azad spent 15 months in jail as if he is an enemy of the state.
Azad was ill and under treatment at the AIIMS for a rare blood-related disease, and yet he was put in a jail that wasn’t equipped to treat him. This has angered the Dalits. During the time he was in the jail on NSA charges, the Congress had similarly arranged legal help for him.
And so, for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, this might be an opportune moment to cement that tie and show the Dalits that she cares about them. While visiting Chandrashekhar Azad in the hospital, Priyanka blamed the “ahankari (BJP) sarkar” for the ordeal he is going through, while admitting she “like(s) his josh (enthusiasm) and sangharsh (struggle)”.
This was no doubt a political visit but the Congress did what the SP and the BSP should have done.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.