A Mayawati Moment
The repression of the Dalits under the Modi regime has infused new energy into the Dalit political sphere. An able administrator like the BSP chief is the only way to contain the BJP and its fear-mongering
The Dalit political consensus is derivative of cross-class aspirations. The Dalit polity is deeply tied to the humanitarian issues of justice, equality and freedom.
Justice against inequalities heaped upon them for generations continues to haunt their existential reality. Generation after generation, the disenfranchised Dalit gentry tries to survive the mayhem caused by social, religious, economic, political and moral injustices.
Equality is what the Dalit community demands. It is not seeking to snatch away the earned, meritorious income of other communities. But it is correctly angered and dismayed by the unpaid labour of their ancestors, and indeed of their contemporaries, and by the perpetuation of inequalities.
Freedom from every possible oppression, by any means necessary, is tabled at various Dalit meetings, gatherings, public events and private group chats. A person looking at these issues objectively might say that every individual surely deserves such freedoms as a basic right. However, a person imbued in casteist history, a person perhaps unconscious to their deep-seated prejudice, will harp obliviously about Dalits daring to claim anything as a 'right'. For the privileged ruling elites of India, Dalits are serfs who do not deserve equal and just treatment. Or, indeed, that Dalits are becoming too brazen in their calls for justice.
It is against this backdrop that we see the Dalit community being brought to exhaustion in its battle with the Modi government. The Modi government-which, let us remember, came to power with the lowest vote share (31 per cent) of any political party to win an outright majority-has been at the forefront of destroying Dalit aspirations and hopes. The evidence for this is in the repeated attacks, even lynching of Dalits, across India. Dalit students on Indian campuses find themselves frighteningly vulnerable. Social organisers in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have been arbitrarily arrested, described as participating in 'anti-national' plots. In 2018, only 6.55 per cent of the Union budget was devoted to schemes for the welfare of SCs, when 16.6 per cent would have been the proportional allocation.
This repression has produced a Newtonian reaction, bringing new energy to the Dalit political sphere. There is a pan-Indian acknowledgment of the Dalit community's rising activism. Anything positive done by Dalits in any corner of the country finds resonance with the community. So, a charismatic youth leader in Saharanpur, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan finds enthusiastic support among Dalit youth across regional lines. Similarly, the Gujarat-based Left-leaning Dalit MLA Jignesh Mevani has become a familiar face across India, his fame arguably disproportionate to his political standing. Young Dalits are crying out for leadership, for a charismatic, radical figure who speaks truth to power, who can articulate Dalit grievance to the country at large. Inevitably, the grand old Dalit parties are wary of these developments, of young firebrands seeking to upset the applecart.
Mayawati, of course, is the toteÃ‚Âmic Dalit leader, the tallest hope of the community. She was part of a movement, she helped form the BahuÃ‚Âjan Samaj Party, is still the most credible Dalit leader on a national level. Calm and composed, with the courage and political confidence to resign from the Rajya Sabha to protest being denied sufficient opportunity to speak about atrocities against Dalits in Saharanpur, Mayawati is a formidable figure. One wonders what she might achieve were she more open to creating intimate connections with other regional Dalit parties.
In Tamil Nadu, where the Scheduled Caste population is a whopping 19 per cent, Dalit political parties have preferred to remain in coalition, keeping abreast of the caste arithmetic that would play in their favour in assembly and local government elections. The VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), for instance, has aligned itself with the Dravidian politics of the DMK and fielded only two candidates-firebrand party president Thirumavalavan, and the writer and editor Ravikumar, who is the party's general secretary.
In Maharashtra, Prakash Ambedkar has allied with Asaduddin Owaisi to form the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and contest all of Maharashtra's 48 seats. Maharashtrian Dalit politics is perhaps more complicated than elsewhere. There are several parties, each swearing by Ambedkarite and Buddhist ethics. The BSP has a history of playing spoiler. And now there is also the Bahujan Republican Socialist Party (BRSP), led by the expelled general secretary and former face of the BSP in southern India, Dr Suresh Mane.
The BSP's strong regional presence is visible from the total vote it amasses from various states-most recently seen in Chhattisgarh (3.9 per cent of the 19.5 per cent Dalit population), Madhya Pradesh (5 per cent of the 15 per cent Dalit population) and RajasÃ‚Âthan (4 per cent of the 17 per cent Dalits). In Telangana, where 16 per cent of the population is Dalit, the BSP won 2.1 per cent of the vote.
What is the choice that faces Dalits in these elections? On the one hand, there are parties with a chequered history who are claiming to have formed a secular, progressive alliance. On the other, there are parties which spew communal hatred, and hope to convince Dalits to join their historical oppressors in sowing further division. Today, while all parties mouth platitudes about an Ambedkarite agenda, social and economic justice, their commitment to Dalit liberation has been non-existent.
Dalits want jobs, land, equal opportunity, healthcare and access to high-quality education, including foreign study opportunities. But alongside material advancement, Dalits also long to annihilate caste, an anathema to India's powerful Brahminical parties. These parties have no interest in the welfare of Dalits, but are only too happy to help create a greedy subset of Dalits whose job it is to tell the rest of us that the best we can hope for is a modicum of liberation under the current oppressive framework. To seek minor changes within the system rather than upend it.
These trained Dalit cadres are sent out to contest elections, tied to furthering a Brahminical agenda. Due to the money they have access to, they can buy support in the Dalit community and receive wider, non-Dalit (anti-Dalit?) support. Such political opportunism undermines the autonomous Dalit project of revolution, of radical reform. The current government's Hindutva bandwagon has left Dalits by the wayside. It has no Dalit leaders who command a substantial following within the community. By using Dalits as tokens, the Brahminical parties-the BJP, Congress, other dominant caste Hindu parties and partly the Communist Party of India-seek only to perpetuate a 'master-slave' relationship.
You can see why a leader like Mayawati means so much to so many Dalits. Here is a leader who employs the likes of Satish Mishra as a token Brahmin, redeploying the principles of the BrahmiÃ‚Ânical parties. She wants to expand her 'footprint', taking the BSP into uncharted territories. She has obvious appeal to both OBCs and Muslims. But her struggles with forming alliances, at one low point even allying with the NDA before withdrawing, illuminates the struggle at the heart of Dalit politics. How to be part of a wide, visionary coalition while retaining a catalysing fervour for radical social and economic justice.
Despite all the casteist mockery, elevating an able administrator such as Mayawati to the top office would be an effective way to keep the BJP in check, to counter its fear-mongering. After all, if those who profess to be progressive flinch at the prospect of a strong Dalit woman's voice at the front, whom would they choose instead? There is no alternative, it is Mayawati's moment!
Suraj Yengde is an inaugural post-doctoral fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School.