Culture & Society

New Phase in Dalit Politics: Crisis or Regeneration?

The fragmentation within the Dalit community and the divisive strategies of mobilization used by the BJP has increased the vote share of the saffron party. This division helped the BJP obtain high seat and vote percentages at the Centre and in UP, while the BSP lost considerable Dalit support. 

BR Ambedkar

An analysis of the Dalit movement in the country today reveals a paradox. On the one hand, Dalit parties are in electoral decline as sections of the Dalits have moved away to non-Dalit parties, impacting the unity and strength of the Dalit movement. On the other hand, Dalit assertion remains strong, as seen from the strident reaction to atrocities in recent years and emergence of organizations/movements led by new Dalit leaders, such as the Bhim Army in Uttar Pradesh (UP) by Chandrasekhar Azad or Ravan; the Una Dalit Aytachar Ladat Samiti (Una Dalit Atrocity Fight Committee) by Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat; and the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi (Coalition of Exploited Bahujans) by Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra. These organizations appeal to both the younger educated generation and the rural smaller Dalit groups who, disappointed with older Dalit parties, are moving away to non-Dalit parties. While these changes are manifest in parties such as the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra and the Liberation Panthers in Tamil Nadu, UP provides the best example of this phenomenon as it is the state where Dalit assertion over the last few decades has determined national politics.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of political consciousness and strong movements among the Dalits in UP, leading to a dominance of lower-caste parties and identity politics that drove both electoral and mass politics in the Hindi heartland. National parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), traditionally viewed as Manuwadi (upper-caste) parties, went into decline, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), institutionalized as a party espousing social justice, self-respect and dignity, was able to capture state power. The 2000s, in contrast, have witnessed the collapse of the BSP and the revival and strengthening of the BJP. The BSP, which gained a majority in the 2007 assembly elections, failed to win even a single seat in the Lok Sabha election in 2014,  nineteen seats in the 2017 assembly elections4 and ten seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, though it managed to gain around 20 per cent of the votes each time. While there have been defections from the BSP since 2014, in January 2020, a large number of party workers in eastern UP joined the Samajwadi Party (SP). These developments have led commentators to point to the collapse of the BSP, arguing that Mayawati no longer commands the loyalty of Dalit voters.

However, such analyses merely focus on the electoral fortunes of a significant Dalit party. In the 2000s, the Dalit movement in the country entered a new phase and acquired a more complex character. In contrast to the 1990s, it is experiencing internal fragmentation, which has created uncertainty and ambiguity over both ideology and action. Two significant developments have been responsible for this. First, the waning of identity politics and a shift from the desire for social justice to aspiration impacted by the twin forces of globalization and cultural modernization, creating a divide between the better-off middle class and the poorer, marginalized section of the Dalits. Second, the revival of the BJP under a new-generation leadership, and its promise of economic development and cultural inclusion within the saffron fold, has attracted the lower jatis (sub-castes) and created an ideological divide between the Ambedkarite or pro-BSP and Hindutvawadi or pro-BJP Dalits. The lack of cohesion within the Dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh is also visible in the shifting modes of political action: support to the BJP in the 2014 national elections, but in more recent years, disillusionment, antagonism and strident opposition to the BJP.

In this situation, the earlier ideology and forms of mobilization used by the older Dalit leaders no longer seem to be of appeal. Having achieved a modicum of political empowerment, identity and self-respect in the 1990s, the Dalits today are in search of a political party/movement that can offer them economic betterment. It is on these twin developments, of decline and regeneration, and how they are shaping the future of Dalit politics in the country, that this essay focuses.

New Ideas, Aspirations and Activism in the 1990s

In the 1990s, India witnessed the gradual emergence of a small, but influential, young, educated and politically conscious Dalit middle class. This new class reached a ‘critical mass’ precisely when the Indian polity experienced globalization, moving towards a market-oriented economy, and it represents a different strand in the Dalit movement as it has evolved over the last two decades. While Dalit movements and parties such as the BSP mobilized on issues of socio-political empowerment, such as identity, dignity and self-respect, the rising middle-class Dalit intellectuals have emphasized the need for economic empowerment through a variety of new means, representing the rise of middle-class activism among Dalits. These new aspirations are best exemplified in the ‘Dalit Agenda’ formulated at the Bhopal Conference in January 2002, which advocated new policies such as Supplier Diversity to create Dalit entrepreneurs. The authors of the Dalit Agenda argued that under the traditional policies of affirmative action and state welfarism, the Dalits have remained mere recipients of welfare, have remained landless/asset-less, below the line of poverty, without a share in the capital in the economy and unable to improve their socio-economic status. Only a tiny elite section of the community or ‘creamy layer’ has been able to improve their educational attainments and economic status, as well as enter into high-paying jobs in the government, various professions, the media, arts and, increasingly, the private sector.

Arguably, even the extension of reservation of jobs to the private sector would help only this small elite, which is why the Dalit Agenda argued for the need for the ‘democratization’ of control over ‘capital’ and a strong Dalit business/industrial class, which could participate equally in the national economy.

The setting up of a Dalit Chamber of Commerce, too, has been the work of this new class. It is also visible in a spate of academic writings — an attempt to reinterpret Dalit history and politics by a new generation of Dalit scholars, examples being Suraj Yengde, Chinnaiah Jangam and Sambaiah Gundimeda.
Simultaneously, the smaller and poorer Dalits, also aspiring for upward mobility, have moved away from traditional parties. There is considerable disillusionment over the failure of the BSP to put forward a socio-economic vision or agenda to address the specific problems of deprivation faced by the Dalits. After the capture of power by the BSP in UP, with a majority in the 2007 assembly election, the Dalits had expected not only self- respect but also improvement in their material situation. While there was some improvement in their socio-economic situation, it did not meet their enhanced expectations. Mayawati is no longer respected as before. Her shift from a Dalit-oriented to a sarvajan policy was viewed to have primarily helped the Jatavs (the dominant sub-caste among the Dalits) and the upper castes who had helped her gain power in 2007. Furthermore, the BSP, since the mid-1990s, because of its preoccupation with gaining state power, has not been a democratizing force as before, when it had moved downwards to mobilize the smaller, poorer Dalit groups, particularly in the backward regions in UP, who have recently entered the mainstream. Consequently, large sections today view it as a purely Jatav party.

The process of modernization often tends to proceed unevenly, benefiting some sections more than others, leading to conflict and competition for political power, economic benefits and social status among social groups both within and across different ethnic categories. Today, the poorer and marginalized Dalit sub-castes who are undergoing a process of cultural modernization influenced by the Hindutva ideology aspire to be part of the larger ‘Hindu’ identity. BJP–RSS leaders have worked silently among these groups, which began to enter the democratic arena, unearthing local histories and myths by which they could link them to Hindutva. For example, the attempt to link three Dalit communities in eastern UP, the Pasis, Musahars and Nishads, with the Ramayana. In a recent study, Badri Narayan has comprehensively shown and provided rich insights into how the Sangh and its vast network of cultural and social outfits have been refashioning its modes of mobilization, thereby assimilating the Dalits, OBCs, tribals and other marginalized communities. The RSS has made the ‘Hindutva meta-narrative’ appeal to a large section of Indians, particularly the lower castes. Hence, what we are witnessing in UP is ‘politically induced cultural change’, the process by which political elites select some aspects of a group’s culture, attach new value and meaning to them, and use them as symbols to mobilize the group.It is this fragmentation within the Dalit community and the highly divisive strategies of mobilization used by the BJP that led to as much as 45 per cent, 38.9 per cent and 48 per cent of the non-Jatavs voting for the BJP, in the 2014, 2017 assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections respectively. This division helped the BJP obtain high seat and vote percentages at the Centre and in UP, while the BSP lost considerable Dalit support. 

Excerpted from The Dalit Truth (Rethinking India series): The Battles for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision, Edited by K. Raju, with permission from Penguin Random House India. 

(Sudha Pai is a well-known political scientist, author and columnist.  Views expressed are personal)