Opinion

In Search Of Individual Caste Identity, Dalits Are No Longer One Cohesive Vote Bank

Political parties look for alternate social engineering to woo voters in changed scenario.

In Search Of Individual Caste Identity, Dalits Are No Longer One Cohesive Vote Bank
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It was a pleasantly sunny day in early 2008 near Jhansi in Bundelkhand. The occasion held as much political significance as it was special journalistically. Mayawati, the BSP’s supreme leader and then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had begun to address rallies in the state and outside, and even started to invite journalists to cover the events. Hordes of people had thronged the venue. Songs blared from speakers. Banners and festoons covered every inch of the political fest. The wait ended around 2 pm when Mayawati’s chopper flew in and hovered over the venue—making the mammoth crowd break into rapturous sloganeering—before touching down at the landing spot.  

Within minutes of taking the stage, the woman Dalit CM of India’s most populous state was at her vitriolic best as she launched a sharp attack on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. “The yuvraj of the Congress goes and has food at houses of Dalits. But I have heard that after this he washes himself with a special soap.” She went on to repeat this charge, with no evidence, at one rally after another in the next few months. Mayawati enthralled the Dalits but also tried to reach out to Brahmins and the extremely backward castes from a position of power.

It seemed that she was set to expand beyond the state and that her brand of assertive Dalit politics—which she learnt from her mentor Kanshi Ram who, in turn, was an admirer of B.R. Ambedkar and his famous work Annihilation of Caste—was set to grow from stronger.  But this was not to be.  

Within five years, a new wave was set to hit UP and much of north India. The Narendra Modi wave almost buried the caste fault lines—though not the religious fissures—and the Dalit-Bahujan assertion took a severe beating. The BJP swept north India in 2014 and again in 2019. In the 2017 ass­embly polls too, it swept UP. Large chunks of OBCs, barring Yadavs, flocked to the party, once identified with the so-called upper castes. As per Lokniti-CSDS, the BJP also won 34 per cent of the Dalit votes cast in 2019, something unimaginable earlier.  

Around the time of the last UP election, this journalist visited the Ravidas Jayanti celebrations in Varanasi. Unlike the festive atmosphere at such gatherings a decade back, the crowd was moderate and not visibly enthusiastic. It was a gathering of core, pensive, supporters of autonomous Dalit politics, who were purchasing Dalit literature being sold at the event, and not seen discussing electoral politics or renting the air with slogans.

Shifting Aspirations: What accounts for this shift from a pan-Dalit identity to sections of the community shifting pol­itical allegiance to the BJP?  Sociologist S.S. Jodhka attributes it to a fragmentation in Dalit votes. Dalits are now thinking as individual castes and not as an umbrella identity, Jodhka told Outlook.  Each caste group among Dalits and OBCs today wants a share of power. If it gets it within the Mandal or Ambedkarite parties, it is fine. If it perceives that these parties have become identified with one single caste, it is ready to do business with others, particularly with a Hindutva identity, that is now in the pole position.  

The BJP—which had started social engineering in the early 1990s at the bidding of K.N. Govindacharya—expanded the OBC and Dalit outreach under Modi and Amit Shah. Ram Nath Kovind became President as the party candidate. Recently, the Cabinet expansion saw more than half the new ministers coming from marginal communities.  The gains among these constituencies have spawned something akin to a Hindu vote, and the BJP hasn’t looked back since.  

Channi Side Up: Just a few days back, the Congress—which had for decades post-independence enjoyed almost a mon­opoly over Dalit votes, thanks largely to Mahatma Gandhi’s Harijan tours of the 1930s, reservation policies and anti-unt­ouchability legislations—borrowed a leaf from the BJP’s playbook. The choice of Charanjit Singh Channi as the new chief minister of Punjab is not just a compromise to keep bloated egos within the Punjab Congress at bay but also a symbolic outreach to Dalits.

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BSP supporters at a politcal rally addressed by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati (not in picture).

Photograph by Getty Images

At close to 32 per cent, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits among all Indian states. And, yet, it hasn’t seen any successful Dalit politics post-independence. Nor, indeed, did the state ever see a Dalit CM before Channi was chosen for the post.  

All the state has seen in the name of Dalit assertion is ass­orted cultural activity in the Doaba region around music alb­ums valorising the chhoraas (young men) from the leather-working caste. There are also the Deras, represented by the Dera Sacha Sauda, that with their relatively plural orientation attract a significant presence of Dalits. However, Jat-Sikhs have a presence in their leadership.

Pre-independence, Punjab had seen the emergence of Ad Dharm, a movement of the leather-working caste, in the 1920s. In 1931, more than three lakh Dalits, mostly from the leather-working caste, identified themselves as Ad Dharmis instead of Hindus or Sikhs in the decennial census. However, the movement petered out within decades.  

Post-independence, Punjab did offer India one of its foremost Dalit political leaders and strategists in Kanshi Ram, the founder of BAMCEF—an organisation for backward castes and minorities among government servants—the DS-4, the agitiational arm of the ‘oppressed’, and the Bahujan Samaj Party. However, Kanshi Ram tasted success not in the state he bel­onged to but in Uttar Pradesh, where one in every five people is Dalit, a lower proportion of Dalit population than in Punjab.

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There are reasons why Dalit politics could not rise in the state. One, there is an almost equal distribution of the leather-working caste, on the one hand, and Valmiki-Majhabis—the sanitation workers—on the other. The two groups have been at cross-purposes for decades and account for three-fourths of Punjab’s Dalit population, making a united Dalit identity a virtual impossibility.

The Valmiki-Mazhabis, at the rock-bottom of the social hierarchy, have accused the leather-workers—who have some disposable income and, consequently, education, since the early 20th century because of ready demand for boots in cantonment areas—of having benefitted exclusively from reservation. Their demand: the reservation pie should be split between the relatively advanced and backward sections of Dalits. This has meant a powerful Dalit identity could not emerge in Punjab.

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Two, the Jat-Sikhs, the dominant agrarian caste, are believed to be about a fourth of the population. As Punjab acquired the image of a state of rich farmers after the Green Revolution, Jat-Sikh hegemony has fused with agrarian hegemony in the state. This powerful group has made an alternative politics difficult.  

Political Symbolism: What does the appointment of Channi, a Ramdasia Dalit from the leather-working caste, mean for the Congress at the state and national level, both in symbolic and real terms? At the state level, opinion is divided on this. It is being widely reported that the Congress, which ended up ups­etting arguably its most successful recent chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh by playing along with Navjot Singh Sidhu and errant MLAs, has sought to go into damage control by installing a Dalit as CM. Congress leaders claim that the decision was necessitated by the growing resentment against Captain Singh, who, ironically, was the only Congress leader to withstand the Modi wave of 2019, helping the party win eight out of 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

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Since Channi was among the dissidents against the former CM, Sidhu stands pacified for the moment. Captain Singh, who had placed a condition that Sidhu should not be elevated to the top post, may also stay subdued for a while, though his future options are open.  

It is also being said that the move may take the wind out of the sails of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP alliance, which was trying to dent Dalit votes going to the Congress, and the Aam Aadmi Party, which was also planning a major Dalit outreach.

However, sources say that the reaction of Jat-Sikhs, who have dominated the bureaucracy and the police, has to be seen. “The bureaucracy and police is heavily Jat-Sikh in the state. Till now, there was no contradiction between this and the state political leadership. However, it remains to be seen whether the system cooperates with the first Dalit CM, who is in the saddle for just a few months, or makes him a lame duck CM. If the latter happens, the Congress will not gain or even contain damage, as it is expecting,” said a local source in the state. “The Congress leadership doesn’t know that symbolism at the Centre may not work in local contexts.”

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The current decline in the political fortunes of Dalit-centric parties amid inclusion of Dalits in key positions by ‘mainstream’ parties is seen by some as a step backwards. For, a section of intellectuals has seen Dalits occupying official positions in this manner rather than through charting out their own course as an example of “co-optation”.  

Not really, argues Jodhka. “This is a post-Kanshi Ram phenomenon, where various Dalit castes are seeking representation around their individual caste identity and not as Dalits, a broader category. If they see chances for representation in the BSP, they will support it. But if they think another party will offer them better prospects, they will align with it.”

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Caste Aside But In Search Of Identity")

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