For more Dalit-Adivasi presence in INDIA

Updated - October 17, 2023 08:36 am IST

Published - October 17, 2023 12:15 am IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could face a tough fight in the 2024 general elections with the Opposition’s announcement of the INDIA alliance. While the INDIA bloc looks formidable, the absence of major Dalit parties in it could raise doubts about its credentials in promoting the agenda of social justice. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) from Tamil Nadu is the only party in the alliance that represents the political concerns of Dalits.

Dalit politics: rise and decline

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise around 25% of India’s population. In conventional social discourse, Dalits and Adivasis are often identified as the poorest people, surviving in precarious socioeconomic conditions. In contrast to such stereotypes, B.R. Ambedkar envisaged socially deprived groups as the robust claimants of sociopolitical rights, ready to engage in democratic processes as a dignified aspirational class. Acknowledging these demands, the newly independent nation offered safeguards and policy frameworks to ensure their participation in the new institutions of the state. However, significant public institutions and major capitalist assets were still dominated by the social elites. It was in response to this status quo that independent political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Bihar/Jharkhand were formed, to become keen claimants of political power.

In the post-Ambedkar period, Dalit politics played an impressive innings in Maharashtra under the leadership of Dadasaheb Gaikwad but periodically failed to emerge as a crucial opposition to the ruling party. Similarly, the VCK in Tamil Nadu under the leadership of Thol. Thirumavalavan has retained an influential, but limited, space in politics. In other States such as Bihar, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, Dalits mobilised against social injustices and atrocities; however, they often adopted militant rhetoric to make their presence felt. It is only in Uttar Pradesh that the BSP showed political creativity and strategic moves that allowed it to win electoral battles several times and rule the State.

Until not too long ago, Dalits were seen as an essential component of the democratic process with the capacity to emerge as the authoritative voice of social justice politics and as the legitimate leader of the downtrodden masses. However, with the growing limitations of the BSP to mobilise socially marginalised groups, especially the backward castes and Muslims, and to churn an effective mobilisation against the right-wing’s political assertion, the nascent aspirations of Dalit-Bahujan politics have derailed substantively. It is often alleged that sections within the Dalits, especially in U.P., are infatuated by the right-wing communal propaganda and have joined the Hindutva fold. Other Dalit political parties, especially Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra and the VCK, are limited due to their regional specificities and incapacity to expand their political base to win important electoral battles. In many States with significant Dalit populations, such as Punjab, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, the community does not even have an effective political presence.

Lessons from Adivasi assertion

In contrast, the presence of Adivasis in democratic battles appears more robust. In social discourse, it is often said that the right-wing’s engagement with the cultural and social issues of Adivasis has been effective in mobilising them into the Hindutva fold substantively. Though the BJP often impresses and mobilises Adivasi groups by using emotive and cultural issues, in many north-eastern States, tribal groups form alliances with the BJP as autonomous political agents and play a dominant role in political processes. In other States which have a significant tribal population, especially in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Adivasi voters have often sidelined the BJP and voted the secular parties in power. In Jharkhand, for instance, the JMM in alliance with the Congress defeated the BJP decisively in the 2019 Assembly elections. It was reported that there was widespread Adivasi anger against the BJP. In the 2018 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the constituencies with a high population of STs and SCs contributed in steering the Congress towards victory. Similarly, in the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Congress performed better than the BJP in the tribal constituencies.

For inclusive politics

For the BSP, the upcoming elections will be crucial to defend its ‘Ambedkarite’ credentials; the party must not hesitate to join the INDIA alliance. Dalit political outfits have to reassert the agenda of social justice, especially at a time when Hindutva politics is determined to transform the foundational constitutional values of the republic. Dalit parties, by participating in the INDIA alliance, could ensure greater unity of socially marginalised groups as well as make substantive demands for equitable distribution of power and political assets.

At the same time, for the INDIA alliance to be a powerful democratic alternative, it must have a social justice agenda and more Dalit-Adivasi leaders. As Dalit and Adivasi political consciousness is groomed by the ideological values of social justice, secularism, and socialism, it is expected that parties representing these community interests will be natural participants in INDIA.

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