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Continued marginality of social justice politics

Despite the revelation of the Bihar Caste Survey last year, the anticipated revival of social justice politics has not materialised.
Last Updated 26 February 2024, 01:17 IST

The grand opening ceremony of Ayodhya’s Ram Temple serves as a strong platform for the BJP to reintroduce itself as the party of the Hindu majority. This aims to elevate the party’s stature as the most influential player in the 2024 electoral battle.

The opposition has yet to present a robust ideological counter to the juggernaut of cultural politics. Despite the revelation of the Bihar Caste Survey last year, the anticipated revival of social justice politics has not materialised.

National political parties in the opposition are yet to build consensus on the caste census or launch a compelling political action to make social justice a key mobilisation factor. Such ideological assertions on the values of social justice could have helped the opposition rebuild an alternative political narrative for the upcoming general elections.

Instead, it is the communal cultural narrative of the Hindutva forces that has occupied the most dominant space in the current political discourse, relegating the opposition as insignificant noise-makers.

The issue of the caste census and the call to enumerate the Other Backward Class (OBC) had salient political objectives. First, OBC-centric political demands are expected to awaken a new consciousness among them, fostering a critical outlook on the fallacies of Hindutva’s cultural hegemony.

While the BJP has cultivated a new image as the party of the socially marginalised communities, particularly the Extremely Backward Class (EBC), through engaging with their religious-cultural symbols and token representation in certain spheres of power, the proponents of the caste census believe it can galvanise OBCs, especially the EBCs, to articulate their political and economic rights independently.

Second, the renewed call for caste census and social justice is seen as legitimising and reasserting the role of parties that are often seen as the proponents of OBC welfare, especially the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. In the recent past, these parties had led a crucial battle against the BJP’s assertion but lost a substantive support base among the Dalit-Bahujan groups in the last decade.

These parties are playing a peripheral role in national politics, and hence it is needed to rebuild their political image as serious and committed organisations towards the OBCs. A growing demand for the caste census and effective social justice policy arrangements from these parties could have won back the Dalit-Bahujan groups that have deserted them and joined the right-wing bandwagon.

Third, it was also expected that a comprehensive survey of the socio-economic backwardness of the population would demonstrate that a large section is surviving in precarious conditions and that the profits of economic liberalisation, the State’s welfare policies, and other important benefits of development have not reached the Dalit-Bahujan mass. Especially within the OBCs, it is evident (as demonstrated in the Bihar Caste Survey) that there is a significant group that can be identified as the EBCs that has remained distant from the benefits of economic development and governmental policies. These economic crises can be demonstrated in the caste survey, producing new claims for the empowerment of the EBCs and other marginalised groups, thus initiating a new political discourse.

Ironically, not much has been done by the opposition over the above-mentioned possibilities. Instead, it was the right-wing political campaign over the Ram Temple that gathered unprecedented momentum and disturbed the nascent emergence of social justice politics over the caste census demand. The opposition lacks the cohesive strategic initiatives, the groundwork required to build an assertive political movement, and an impressive, committed leadership that can provide social justice with a higher podium in the national political deliberations.

For example, the opposition has failed to build a widespread national political struggle or mobilise over social backwardness and economic underdevelopment. Despite the consistent exclusion of the OBCs, Scheduled Castes, and Tribes from accessing the powerful class assets (like big industries, media houses, business corporates, etc.) and being alienated from holding influential positions in governance (judiciary, cabinet ministers, top positions in bureaucracy, etc.), the opposition has not prioritised challenging these lopsided power arrangements. Often, the opposition failed to launch effective mobilisation over the agenda of land reforms, justice against caste atrocities, and the fulfilment of reservation policies.

Further, the social justice movement lacks significant support and participation from civil society groups. There are apprehensions and even criticisms of social justice politics within the Left-liberal intellectual circles, and often they fail to understand the political ethics behind such a crucial state-laden policy framework. Importantly, the Dalit-Bahujan middle class has shown no interest in demanding a comprehensive caste census on their forums.

The networking needed between social activists, political influencers, NGOs, cultural artists, and other groups that work with marginalised communities, which is crucial to amplify the issue of caste census and social justice, is absent.

Lastly, there is a need for political education to highlight the merits of the caste census in addressing caste fragmentation, conflicts, and cultural antagonisms between Dalit-Bahujan groups. The political class lacks the will to bring effective social reforms into this sphere. The absence of fraternal cohesion between the Dalits and the OBCs disallows the promotion of a picture of oppressed people’s unity even at the political front. Though mainstream national parties like the Congress, RJD, SP, and others have demonstrated their support for the demand for a caste census, there is no sign of a substantive intervention in the social sphere to build a collective Dalit-Bahujan aspiration.

Though the issue of the caste census is crafted prudently to challenge the BJP, it has the potential to bring crucial social and economic reforms. A new ideological assertion on the values of social justice can produce an impressive fraternity between the Dalit-Adivasi and the OBC groups against the established ruling elites. The majoritarian power of the oppressed can find a concrete shape if the current leadership in the opposition provides social justice with a higher mantle in the battle against right-wing dominance.

(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU)

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(Published 26 February 2024, 01:17 IST)

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