A new voice in a crowded space

Having sprung into the limelight with its confrontational ways of activism, the Bhim Army, a Dalit outfit based in western Uttar Pradesh, has decided to plunge into formal politics. The contours of its plan are not yet clear, but the outfit is expected to make an official announcement at a rally on March 15. Some leaders who were formerly with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are also billed to join the Bhim Army’s political formation.

Read: Comment | Mayawati’s blurred political vision

An alternative voice

With an already packed Opposition field in U.P., and with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominating the political landscape, the Bhim Army would serve itself well to not harbour unrealistic ambitions. However, what’s undeniable is that its activism coincides with the failure of the mainstream parties — in particular, the BSP — in espousing the Dalit cause in the last few years.

BSP chief Mayawati’s appeasement of upper castes, reluctance to take up cases of Dalit atrocities, and alleged dilution of the reservation policy have all left the educated Dalit youth frustrated. In recent times, the biggest shortcomings of the BSP have been Ms. Mayawati’s obsolete communication methods and reluctance in re-organising her party in sync with the changing aspirations of the youth. Unlike other parties, the BSP does not have a student or youth wing and its over-reliance on the personality and caste credentials of its leader has led to a stagnation of the larger Bahujan movement (of Other Backward Classes and Dalits) started by her mentor, Kanshi Ram.

Following the 2014 general election, in which the BSP won no seats and the BJP emerged with a brute majority, it was natural that Dalit politics would see a churn. In 2017, Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad, a lawyer by education, was propelled into the spotlight as a local Dalit hero during the Dalit-Thakur clashes in Saharanpur. With the Bhim Army not shying away from taking on the dominant castes, a new voice claiming to fight for the dignity and security of Dalits emerged.

With its limited means, the outfit has no doubt caught the imagination of the Dalit youth. It has provided them with an alternative voice and mobilised them to fight for their constitutional rights on the streets. Mr. Azad’s confrontational approach and masculine flamboyance stand in contrast to the calculated and now restrained approach of Ms. Mayawati. Her decreasing public appearances and disconnect from ground conditions are stark today in the face of a sustained outreach by the RSS-BJP among Dalits, as well as the unrelenting phenomenon of caste-based violence, exploitation and subjugation. With the BSP’s electoral fortunes steadily declining since 2012 and Ms. Mayawati promoting her dynasty as the second line of leadership, a voice for an alternative was bound to emerge sooner or later.

Not a direct contender

But beyond the romanticism associated with Mr. Azad, does the Bhim Army have enough substance and depth to grow as a mainstream political voice, let alone transform itself into a political party to be taken seriously?

Time and again, Ms. Mayawati has revealed her insecurity about the Bhim Army by labelling it as a BJP proxy that is out to mislead Dalits and cut into her vote base to help her opponents. This insecurity is rooted in the fact that the Bhim Army’s support base and the BSP’s support base overlap. In real terms, this means that the Bhim Army would rely heavily on the support of the Jatavs, who are also the BSP’s core, to grow.

Beyond this similarity, however, it would be over-ambitious to pitch Mr. Azad as a direct political alternative to Ms. Mayawati, at least at this stage. Despite the BSP’s downslide and limitations, Ms. Mayawati still commands relevance in U.P. politics, more so among members of her community. The 2022 Assembly election offers her a chance to redeem her performance. Besides, with many Dalit leaders from the BSP already shifting to the Samajwadi Party, SP president Akhilesh Yadav would also likely project himself as the best bet for their interests in 2022.

Dalit thinkers in U.P. are divided over the Bhim Army’s growth. While some welcome it as a parallel socio-politico force that could work for the political empowerment of Dalits, others are more critical of the outfit’s aggressive approach and believe that competing with Ms. Mayawati would lead to further fragmentation of the Dalit voice, and possibly vote. But what’s common between these two groups is that they don’t pitch Mr. Azad as a serious electoral entity at this stage, his appeal notwithstanding. Therefore, a realistic goal for the Bhim Army would be to fill in the social vacuum left by the BSP without a hasty entry into the electoral game.

Challenges and constraints

The Bhim Army has many challenges and constraints. First, it does not have enough muscle to weather likely administrative action from the Yogi Adityanath government (Mr. Azad was jailed for a year under the National Security Act by the U.P. government for allegedly inciting violence). Second, it lacks a proper structure, resources, a pan-U.P. presence, and a solid network. This is its third challenge. The Bhim Army started out flaunting its caste identity through ‘The Great Chamar’ signboards. However, in the long run, this confrontational style maybe unsustainable or even counter-productive. Fourth, in the last few years, Ms. Mayawati has struggled to fill the gap between the Jatavs and the non-Jatav Dalits, deepened and exploited by the BJP through its clever caste engineering, promotion of caste icons, distribution of positions, and the appeal of Hindutva nationalism. The same burden would have to be borne by Mr. Azad.

So far, the Bhim Army has raised its voice over stray incidents of atrocities and organised some dharnas. It lacks a clear ideological plank and the intellectual guidance that the BSP enjoys. Rather than chasing short-term electoral glory in 2022 and running the risk of being consumed by mainstream parties, it would do well to set itself long-term goals of social change and empowerment of the Dalits, and draw linkages between the OBC and the SC communities. Its presence on the ground could play a small role in acting as a counterforce to the steady saffronisation of Dalit communities, especially in western U.P., a communally sensitive area.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 1:09:51 AM |

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