Where are Dalit-Bahujan voices, platforms?

Where are Dalit-Bahujan voices, platforms?

Two dominant political alliances, helmed by the elites, have taken over the social justice debate

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Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 00:14 IST
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 00:14 IST

The political divide in the 2024 general elections has become almost standardised.

The BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, appears poised for its possible third term in office, while the Congress has pitched a slow but impressive battle to defeat the incumbent power.

There seems to be no significant wave in favour of either alliance, and some have even predicted that the BJP’s tally might fall from 303 in 2019 to between 200 and 240 seats.

This opens up the possibility for the Congress to secure a comfortable position, claiming a stronger presence in the new parliament.

Amid the clash of two major political blocs, smaller political outfits are relegated to insignificance. Especially for the Dalit political parties, the chance to maintain their independent political assertion in such a bi-polar electoral contest is severely restricted.

Ambedkar envisioned that modern democracy would not re-establish the power and privileges of the conventional social elites but would instead allow socially marginalised groups to take centre stage in the structures of power.

In the mid-1980s, with the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, Dalit-Bahujan political assertions were impactful and democratised political power substantively. However, the control and domination of the social elites over democratic institutions have not significantly diminished.

In the current phase, Dalit-Bahujan parties have struggled to retain their influence on democratic processes, while parties that traditionally served the interests of ruling elites now claim to represent the concerns of socially margin-alised groups.

For various Dalit parties today, political choices are limited. Parties such as Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu and Lok Janshakti Party (Chirag Paswan) have aligned with dominant camps, whereas BSP and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra have decided to contest the elections independently.

In both cases, the relegation of these parties seems inevitable. Although the Dalit parties are playing a secondary role in the current elections, the political climate has heated up with claims and concerns for social justice.

Both political alliances, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A), overtly assert that they represent the interests of the poor and socially marginalised groups better.

The Umbrella Congress

The Congress appears comfortable steering the political discourse around the issues of marginalisation and deprivation faced by socially marginalised communities.

Under Mallikarjun Kharge’s leadership, the Congress has positioned itself as a party of oppressed social groups, inviting Dalits to repose their trust in the party.

Secondly, it has built a subtle but effective political campaign over the demand for the caste census, mainly to mobilise and engage the Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

Thirdly, Adivasis are mobilised against the BJP over allegations that the right-wing party favours the super-rich elites and will displace the poor forest dwellers from their lands to please corporate capitalists.

The Congress is capitalising on the disenchantment that the Dalit-Adivasi and the OBCs have experienced under the BJP’s rule.

Especially over the concern of social justice, the Congress has reprimanded the BJP and campaigned relentlessly, saying that if the BJP comes back to power, the facilities of the reservation policy will be taken away.

Furthermore, it propagates the rhetoric that the right-wing party
is prepared with its draft of a new constitution, ready to change ‘Ambedkar’s Constitution’. The campaign is particularly effective among Dalit and Adivasi groups, as they view the Constitution as the protector of their rights and entitlements.

Subaltern Hindutva

The BJP appears defensive on the social justice agenda. Especially towards the end of the third round of elections, the campaign pitch shifted from Modi’s promises of development to creating a Hindu-Muslim divide in the national discourse.

The prime minister flagged that the Congress’ manifesto leans more towards the welfare of Muslim minorities, arguing that the party will deprive other marginalised communities of their rights.

However, such rhetoric made little impact; instead, it forced the BJP to clarify its stand on the future of social justice policies. The prime minister reiterated his OBC identity, and the home minister was quick to assure that the BJP would abide by constitutional directives and not disrupt reservation policy.

The BJP’s political success mainly depends on the support base of lower OBCs and certain sections of Dalits. The BJP appears comfortable with its ‘Subaltern Hindutva’ strategies that mainly mobilise and connect the lower OBCs through various cultural events.

Further, the party expected that the well-executed implementation of various welfare schemes for the poor would influence marginalised social groups to vote for the BJP. The BJP has curated its pro-poor character and linked itself with the cultural claims of the socially marginalised groups, thus improvising upon the conventional ‘Brahmin-Bania Party’ stereotype.

Though the issues of social justice are highlighted by both alliances, it also showcases that in such deliberation, the socially marginalised groups are relegated as the petty subjects of the State’s welfare schemes or as the emotive groups that are bewitched by cultural slogans.

The political deliberations on social and economic justice are thus curated and monitored under the domination of the conventional social elites, allowing merely a residual role to the Dalit-Bahujan groups.

The possibility that the subaltern castes can dismantle the conventional
ruling elites from power and govern democratic institutions has almost diminished for now.

The current relegation and passivity of the Dalit and OBC parties are unhealthy for India’s democracy. Without their robust and influential participation, the electoral process will become a soulless procedural function that perpetuates the power and privileges of the social elites.

The Dalits, Adivasis, and other subaltern social groups must contemplate their passive and derailed political locations and mobilise
the socially marginalised groups to bring substantive change in the democratic structures.

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


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