November 30, 2022

A strong Dalit political movement is essential for a vibrant democracy

Babasaheb Ambedkar wished to uplift the castes of the untouchables from the depressing social situation subjugated to promote them as equal seekers of social rights and political power. Ambedkarite policy was based on the realization that social elites lack ethical convictions regarding the emancipation of socially marginalized communities. Post-Ambedkar Dalit politics emerged as a fearless challenge to the parental and moralistic appeals of Congress and was admired as a force for radical transformation. He underpinned the democratic churning by raising the political status of socially marginalized groups.

Today, although Dalit claims for political and social justice are broadened in public discourse, they lack a centralized location to monitor the tactics of ruling elites that often disrupt the Dalit political agenda.

The Dalit assertion is now downplayed by right-wing supporters as narrow political act and its politics as sectarian rhetoric. In addition, Dalit politics lacks ideological or institutional mechanisms to alleviate growing internal contradictions within the community.

The contemporary Dalit movement has spread to new territories with diverse interests and ambitions. Mainstream Dalit parties, notably the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, are now complemented by the promising activism of Viduthalai ChiruthaikalKatchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra. Although each party claims to serve the interests of the Dalit-Bahujan, there is no social or political comrade between them. Interestingly, in states with huge scheduled caste populations, such as Punjab and Bengal, there is a visible absence of Dalit social or political movements.

Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have a history of vibrant Dalit consciousness. They celebrate the legacy of strong anti-Brahmin social struggles and are lauded for their radical political programs.

However, Dalit parties in both states have nominal success in electoral battles. In the last Assembly elections, although the VCK and VBA revived the Dalit-Bahujan political agenda; both are still weak forces, having limited influence in transforming state power dynamics.

Importantly, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have witnessed divisions among Dalit voters and often sections within Dalits have supported parties that have often been referred to as organizations of conservative social elites.

Although Dalits in these states wear Ambedkar on their sleeves, they differ when it comes to voting “en bloc” for a Dalit party. While in the UP and Bihar, it can be seen that the Dalits offered a committed base of support for the BSP and the LJP.

In UP, Kanshi Ram was a maverick leader because he nurtured an engaged Dalit constituency and imagined the possibility of a Dalit-OBC alliance. Dalit politics used distinct political strategies (like upper anti-caste social engineering) and creative local narratives (unearthing caste stories and icons) to make their presence felt. Identical attempts have been made by Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar under populist socialist slogans.

Although the majority of Dalits survive in precarious social and economic conditions, their political awareness has been strong and impactful. A committed bloc of Jatav or Dusadh voters rallied around the BSP and LJP, offering them competitive strength in every election, making both parties influential power holders in national politics.

After impressive success in UP politics (Mayawati becoming four times chief minister of state), the BSP aspired to become the representative party of the Dalit-Bahujan at the national level but failed to replicate the model in no other state. Over the past decade, the political strength and social support of the BSP has diminished, suggesting that significant sections within the Dalits are now being mobilized by the Hindutva party. Likewise, after the disappearance of the undisputed leader of the LJP, Ram Vilas Paswan, the party is troubled by intra-family quarrels and has failed to demonstrate its electoral strength in the last legislative elections. Above all, Chirag Pawan, the new leader of the LJP, shows no qualms about demonstrating his affinity with the BJP.

In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Dalits have demonstrated commendable political strength, we are now seeing social disruptions, intracast divisions and a mobilization based on the segmentation of castes. The heterogeneous behavior of Dalits is perceived as social complexity or a lack of political awareness.

It is argued that the Dalit parties have not only failed to form a competent Dalit unit, but also to serve the interests of lower-ranking Dalits. As a result, the parties charged by the social elites attracted the poorest social groups to their barracks. Interestingly, it was Prakash Ambedkar’s pioneering slogan of “Vanchit-Bahujan” that prompted Dalit politics to reflect on the possibility of providing legitimate leadership to the most marginalized sections of Dalits and CBOs.

With the rise of the political force of the right, it is perpetuated that the Dalits have heterogeneous political ambitions, rational and pragmatic choices and they are now far removed from the narrow political mobilization of identity. Under such allegations, the radical political agenda of Dalit politics is exhausted. Without the presence of a powerful Dalit political movement, Indian democracy will not remain vibrant, participatory and transformative. Current federal segments of Dalit politics must deliberate on its national character so that a unified force can emerge to combat right-wing coercive power.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Center for
Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)