Dalit politics at a crossroads?

Dalit politics at a crossroads?

Dalit discourse seems to be on a decline after the Una case of 2016

Illustration by Sajith Kumar

When the Congress picked Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, as the chief minister of Punjab, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati congratulated him but also sought to remind Dalits not to be “misled” by the “propaganda” of national parties such as the Congress.

Congratulating Channi but criticising the party that appointed him can be seen as usual politics, except that in Mayawati’s case there is more to it than meets the eye. The BSP chief is under huge pressure amid her party’s back-to-back poor poll performances in UP and the aggressive wooing of Dalits by the Congress and the BJP. Her appeal to Dalits is a sign of desperation as she tries to prevent a division of Dalit votes.

Also Read | Deepening of caste politics in the country

Things are no better for Chirag Paswan after an acrimonious split of the Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar.

Founded by the late Ram Vilas Paswan, the party, with nearly 5% Paswan votes, punched above its weight. Paswan himself was part of several governments at the Centre and perhaps the longest serving Union minister.

Paswan is no more and the party founded by him is at a crossroads, with the slugfest between ‘chacha’ (uncle Pashupati Kumar Paras) and ‘bhatija’ (Chirag Paswan) threatening to permanently damage the vote base of the party. While Paras has become a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, Chirag seems inching closer to the Opposition camp in Bihar led by the RJD.

The BJP and the Congress, who had not gone for aggressive Dalit politics in past, are making concerted attempts to woo Dalit voters and overturn the old model of the community being represented by Dalit parties in Hindi heartland and elsewhere.

“Currently, the most competitive vote base is the Dalit chunk,” says political analyst Rasheed Kidwai. “You see all the parties, national and regional, vying to woo them as other communities have by and large declared their choices. Moreover, the Dalit vote is numerically significant in most Indian states, and as such truly a pan Indian phenomenon.”

But Kidwai points out the Dalit dilemma: right now there is no national level Dalit leader who can capture the imagination of the community. “The absence of a coordinated Dalit movement makes political representation a tricky question for the community,” he adds.

The classic case is Punjab, where Channi became the first Dalit CM of the state, which despite being the home town of Kanshi Ram and having more than 30% SC population has never been a Dalit discourse in its political life.

In Gujarat, similar moves are afoot ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls. Young Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who shot to limelight after his protest against the 2016 Una Dalit flogging case, shared the Congress dais along with Kanhaiya Kumar last month.

Mevani could help the Congress woo Dalits who make up nearly 7% of the population in Gujarat, where the Congress had managed to confine a dominant BJP to just 99 Assembly seats in the 2017 Assembly polls. But will Mevani, currently an MLA from Vadgam, be in a position to tilt Dalit votes for the Congress across the state is a big question, given the strong network the RSS enjoys in the area.

The Congress is hopeful that its gambit of appointing Channi as Punjab CM pays off and its ripples felt in UP - a state where Mayawati served as the CM for four terms.

Between 2010 and 2012, Rahul Gandhi had made a concerted effort to woo Dalits into the Congress fold. Unfortunately for the grand old party, when the BSP lost the 2012 state polls, the main beneficiary was the Samajwadi Party.

In UP, despite getting core Jatav votes plus some other Dalit ones, Mayawati could not win a single seat in 2014 Lok Sabha polls while the party mustered just 10 Lok Sabha seats in alliance with SP in 2019, belying the earlier perception of a SP-BSP alliance being invincible. Mayawati later walked out of the alliance post the Lok Sabha polls, alleging that SP voters did not vote for the BSP.

There is also a trend that the BSP’s performance in other states like MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, which has a significant Dalit population, goes down when it is not in power in UP.

In 2008, when Mayawati was UP Chief Minister, the BSP had secured 7.6% vote share in Rajasthan, which was almost twice what it got in 2003. In the 2013 Assembly election, the BSP’s vote share dipped to 3.44% (SP was in power in UP at that time).

Similarly, even in Chhattisgarh its vote share declined from 6.12% to 4.3% when it was not ruling UP.

A significant chunk of Dalit voters tend to shift to the Congress or the BJP in these states when they find the BSP is not in a strong position. Hence a revival in UP is must for the BSP to stay relevant for Dalit voters elsewhere as well.

The SP’s “gaon-gaon Dalit samwad” in UP concluding in December first week is an attempt project the primarily OBC party as pro-Dalit and blunt the Dalit-Jatav political rivalry. But whether Dalits will choose the SP over the BSP, Congress and BJP remains doubtful.

The Sangh Parivar reaches out

The RSS-BJP first began reaching out to Dalits under Seva Bharti during Balasaheb Deoras’s term as RSS head in the seventies. It has now borne fruit, with the non-Jatav Dalit voters in UP widening the base of the saffron party.

The BJP got almost 50% of total votes in the state in 2019 Lok Sabha polls as the Modi government repeatedly invoked Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and set up chairs in his name and constructing memorials for him. In November 2019, the BJP organised a four-day drive to connect with Dalits.

In 2019, the BJP for the first time appointed a Dalit leader, Thawar Chand Gehlot, as its Leader of Rajya Sabha and went to the town hailing the decision. The party has also been repeatedly pointing out how it made a Dalit leader, Ram Nath Kovind, President of India in July 2017.

In August this year, BJP President J P Nadda felicitated a woman block Pramukh Sonia from Jatav community while in September the party held the national executive meetings of its national morcha in the state.

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