Dalits aspire to more than just symbolic empowerment

Message For Mayawati

By: Badri Narayan

The famous historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had once asked, ‘‘Identity is all very well but what after identity?” This is the same question that the Dalits of UP have begun asking Mayawati. While travelling across villages in central Uttar Pradesh just before the recent elections to gauge the mood of the Dalits, one found this question being posed frequently. And this may well have had a bearing on Dalits’ pronounced indifference to voting in some places.

Is it apt to surmise that Dalit identity politics is passing through a crisis? Like their counterparts in Maharashtra, Dalits in UP could ultimately drift to mainstream parties. This fear has been haunting Mayawati, who was quite sure that all the Dalits of UP had a strong symbiotic bonding with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). This presumption was also based on the hope that Dalits would vote her in even if she did not do much to improve their living conditions.

The truth is that the majority of Dalits in UP are wallowing in acute poverty and illiteracy. Their hope that the BSP, a party of the Dalits, is committed to their welfare and would elevate their socio-economic condition stands belied. One cannot deny that Rahul Gandhi’s new political idiom of development and prosperity, and his occasional intermingling with Dalits in villages, provided an effective alternative platform to aspiring Dalits who wish to go beyond identity politics. This Dalit section is as much enamoured by consumerism as any other class in the country.

Mayawati’s political strategy of social engineering by trying to forge a rainbow coalition of lower castes or ‘bahujans’ together with the upper castes, and calling the entire group ‘sarvajan’ succeeded in the last assembly elections. But it did not work in the parliamentary elections. The reason is that while the ‘bahujan to sarvajan’ politics dilutes the feeling of bahujan identity within the Dalits, it never helped Dalits bond culturally with the upper castes. Essentially, there is a huge gap between the bahujan and the upper castes, which cannot be bridged by mere electroral and political alliances. It can be bridged only when the Dalits obtain the same living standards as upper castes – a situation which exists in the realm of imagination still, as a large section of Dalits continue to live on the margins of our society.

The upper castes of UP too cannot accept the Dalits as their social equals – even if they happen to hold senior positions in the administration – because of the vast cultural differences between the two groups. This is best illustrated by the fact that Mayawati could not develop symbols or the same symbolic language for sarvajan which she had developed for the bahujan – based on the memories of their oppressive past and on their myths, legends and caste heroes. Thus, sarvajan politics could not enter the internal world of either the Dalits or the upper castes and remained only an electoral alliance.
Realising the folly of a political alliance which is not supported by socio-economic and cultural realities, Mayawati beat a hasty retreat. Just after the election results were out she abolished all bhaichara or social harmony committees, which were the basis of sarvajan politics. She declared her intent to revert to bahujan politics.

This tactical retreat from sarvajan politics, and a renewed attempt to extend the Dalit vote bank to the OBCs and minorities fits into Kanshi Ram’s original definition of bahujan. However, while it is usually assumed that the Dalits comprise a homogeneous category that includes all the scheduled castes, the reality in UP is different. There is plenty of space for fragmentation among Dalits. In such a scenario, there is a possibility of Dalits being co-opted in a Hindutva project designed to communalise the Dalit identity.

One consequence of BSP’s politics over the last few years is that Dalits have now developed a strong desire for development. As this is in tune with the development-oriented strategies of the Congress it is likely to lead them to the Congress fold unless BSP develops new political strategies to retain them. Rahul’s accessibility and overtures to Dalits are seen as a sincere effort aimed at reviving memories of a benevolent Congress. This, juxtaposed with Mayawati’s inaccessibility, has led to the setting of a new standard of popularity among Dalits.

BSP’s earlier political strategies for mobilising Dalits, based on their oppressive and painful history, had initially struck an emotional chord. But the new political language developed by Rahul and his developmentoriented strategies pose new challenges. If Mayawati wants to win back Dalits into the BSP fold she will have to find an alternative to mere symbolism and concentrate more on improving their socio-economic condition.

(The writer is a senior faculty member at the G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.)


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