Back to the BSP’s roots

leading voice: “Ms. Mayawati has not consistently championed the Dalit cause in recent years. But when she speaks up, it changes the discourse.” File photo of the BSP leader before a press conference in Lucknow.  

“It is a matter of grave concern that the BJP government, driven by the agenda of the RSS, is trying to abolish reservations and other rights given by our Constitution because of the efforts of Dr. Ambedkar to those people who have remained neglected for centuries, especially Dalits, Adivasis, and Backwards... And not only that, these sections are being oppressed and exploited in BJP-ruled States. The case of the Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, the Una incident in Gujarat, and the Dayashankar Singh incident in Uttar Pradesh are some important examples.

“The condition of these oppressed groups is not going to change with the BJP government's announcement of some memorials and museums honouring their messiah Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, or, like the Congress party, occasionally sharing meals with Dalits and Backwards... Faced with injustice, persecution and caste discrimination, these sections do not want words and pity from the BJP and Narendra Modi. They want those responsible to be held accountable by law. They want, along with self-respect, equality, reservations and other rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution…”

Champion of ‘Bahujan Samaj’

This was Ms. Mayawati, speaking at an October 9 rally in Lucknow on Kanshi Ram’s death anniversary, in a resounding return to the Dalit-Bahujan roots of the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BSP was created as a champion of the “Bahujan Samaj”, which it defined as the majority constituted by a coalition of downtrodden minorities: Dalits, Adivasis, backwards and religious minorities, or, in its own words, everyone but the Hindu upper castes. It had moved away from its founding ideology in the last two decades by courting the Hindu upper castes, replacing its advocacy of the “Bahujan Samaj” with an umbrella appeal to “Sarvsamaj”, all sections of society. Now, on the eve of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, all mentions of “Sarvsamaj” have been scrubbed from Mayawati’s speeches and her party’s website. Instead, the BSP has returned to its old strategy of appealing to its core base of Dalit voters, along with other Bahujan groups — particularly Muslims in this election — on a constituency-by-constituency basis.

The BSP’s return to its roots, just like its earlier deviation from them, is driven by pragmatic considerations. It is trying to regain the ground it lost to the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Highlighting the series of violent incidents targeting Dalits that occurred under BJP rule in a span of just 12 months — the burning alive of two Dalit children in Faridabad in October 2015, the suicide of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad in January, the public beating of Dalit youths by cow-protecting vigilantes in Una in Gujarat in July, and the use of abusive language towards Mayawati by the BJP’s then U.P. State vice-president Dayashankar Singh a few days later, which she successfully framed as an insult to all Dalits and all women — hits the BJP where it is most vulnerable. These incidents had also created such anger among those in her own base that Ms. Mayawati could hardly afford to ignore them. Instead, she has worked them into a broader appeal which, as the old BSP did, emphasises the common interests and the common predicament of diverse minorities. The persecution of both Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection has lent particular force to this appeal.

Ms. Mayawati’s strong advocacy of the Bahujan Samaj may not last beyond the verdict. If the elections produce a hung Assembly, the imperatives of coalition politics may well dilute the BSP’s position again. But even if pragmatic or short-lived, this advocacy is important.

To see why, consider a basic fact: almost all directly elected Dalit legislators in India, in both the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, belong to parties that are dominated by some other group.

In the current Lok Sabha, only three of the 85 Dalit MPs belong to a Dalit-led party — the Lok Janshakti Party, led by Ram Vilas Paswan. (The BSP won no seats in the 2014 parliamentary election.) The overwhelming majority of Dalit MPs belong to parties with a leadership that is either forward caste or, less often, from the backward castes: 40 Dalit MPs belong to the BJP, another 7 Dalit MPs belong to the Congress, one Dalit MP belongs to the CPI(M), and the remaining 34 to regional parties.

In the State Assemblies, taken together, there are currently 612 Dalit MLAs. Only 3 per cent belong to a Dalit-led party, and most of these MLAs belong to the BSP. The largest single group of Dalit MLAs also belongs to the BJP (25 per cent), with another 14 per cent belonging to the Congress, and 4 per cent to the two Communist parties. The remainder belong to regional parties with non-Dalit leaders.

The fact that Dalit legislators in India almost always belong to parties in which some other group controls the reins means that their voices rarely shape the debate on how Dalits are treated in India. The voices that have the greatest weight in defining the positions of their parties in this debate are the voices of the groups that lead them, most often Hindu upper castes.

In principle, everybody has a right to speak on questions of how subordinate groups in India are treated. Discrimination against Dalits or Muslims or backward castes or women is not the problem of Dalits or Muslims or backward castes or women alone: it is everybody’s problem. In a democratic polity, this means that everybody should also have a voice in the debate over such discrimination. But the groups to which they belong inevitably shape the sensitivities of the speakers. And the fact that the debate among political parties over the conditions of Dalits has been shaped to a very large extent by non-Dalit voices has created some important silences.

Rohith Vemula’s death is a case in point. His suicide produced a vigorous debate between political parties, on the streets and in Parliament. But, although the BJP is the party which has the largest number of Dalit MPs and also the largest number of Dalit MLAs, its response contained little empathy and no effort to acknowledge or address the broader issues of caste discrimination in the context of which Vemula killed himself. Instead, the emphasis was on avoiding responsibility. Opposition parties, meanwhile, used Vemula’s death to attack the BJP for its role in his death. For both sides, the discourse around Vemula’s suicide became more about the BJP and culpability than about Dalits and discrimination.

Why Mayawati matters

As the largest Dalit-led party in the Indian landscape, the BSP’s voice is different. In her remarks, Ms. Mayawati too attacked the BJP and allocated blame liberally. But the key difference in how she spoke, compared to the positions of other parties attacking the BJP, is that she spoke not only of culpability but also of rights and of respect. That is not a trivial difference. It fuels an assertion, and a change in democratic culture, that outlasts a single election.

Ms. Mayawati has not consistently championed the Dalit cause in recent years. But when she speaks up, even in fits and starts, it changes the discourse.

Kanchan Chandra is Professor, Wilf Family Department of Politics, New York University

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 3:03:50 PM |

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