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Revisiting the politics of social justice in Uttar Pradesh

Etching illustration of hands with soft dreamy quality. Lots of texture.

Etching illustration of hands with soft dreamy quality. Lots of texture.

The astonishing rise of Hindutva politics, especially in the Hindi belt, has almost relegated the politics of social justice to the back burner. Till recently, it was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that emphatically raised the agenda of social justice and also mobilised the lower castes as influential participants in the electoral democracy of Uttar Pradesh. However, in the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, it must be noted that the BSP has witnessed a considerable drop in its vote percentage (from 30.43% in 2007 to 22.24% in 2017). And instead, it has been the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has emerged as a new ‘inclusive’ party, with a whopping 39% of the vote share. In the current phase of politics and elections, it is the BSP that appears to be inactive and irrelevant.

Key strategy

The right-wing party has been quite successful in engaging and bringing the socially marginalised sections into its fold by executing creative cultural strategies. However, the Yogi Adityanath government has not provided substantive welfare policies to satisfy the quest for social justice or to enable rapid economic development as far as the backward communities are concerned. The recent examples of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) leaders moving away from the BJP is a hint that the socially deprived communities could be disillusioned with the BJP and might lend their support to the Samajwadi Party (SP) that appears to be promising in political terms. Such a shift could reinvent the politics of social justice in the State.

Politics of social justice, limits

B.R. Ambedkar held the view that social justice is not merely a welfare policy framework. Rather, it is a dynamic tool to generate revolutionary political consciousness among socially marginalised groups. In the post-Ambedkar period, it was Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP, who reintroduced the agenda of social justice as a transformative political ideology.

Kanshi Ram utilised the ideas of social justice to highlight oppressive caste hierarchies and also inspired marginalised groups to build a robust political opposition. He argued that the national political parties retained their domination over legislative bodies by relegating the lower caste groups as a passive vote bank. He imagined that the socially marginalised communities could be united under a Dalit leadership (as Bahujan) and defeat the traditional ruling castes (often represented as Manuwadis). He proposed that the replacement of the conventional ruling elites by a Dalit-Bahujan collective would bring about a revolutionary change in governance and policy matters.

Imagining the Dalit-Bahujan mass as the ruling class was a radical vision. And forming social and political alliances are the foundational requirements to achieve such goals. However, the stiff social and cultural divisions between Dalits and Other Backward Classes disallowed the possibility to organise a unified political front. The current vanguards of social justice politics have been criticised for a deep attachment to specific communitarian identities (like the BSP and the SP are often belittled as being the parties of the Jatavs and Yadavs, respectively) and alleged that the worst-off social groups (such as the Maha-Dalits and most backward castes) are not being given their legitimate space in electoral politics. Ironically, the lower caste parties often hesitate to join hands when it comes to pushing for an agenda of social justice (there is the well-known rivalry between the BSP and the SP) but find comfort in fighting independently or by forming alliances with the parties led by social elites. The right wing exploits the trust deficit between the Dalit-Bahujan groups and mobilises them on distinct cultural fronts.

Right-wing cultural politics

Since 2014, the BJP has launched a powerful rhetoric of development, anti-corruption politics and tapped the euphoria of nationalism that often bewitches aspirational groups and motivates them to support right-wing politics. Most importantly, the maverick top leadership in the BJP effectively controls the ship of propaganda and makes this party a dynamic force among the vulnerable social groups.

The right wing’s understanding of social justice is curated under a neo-liberal ideological prescription. It looks down on popular institutional practices to ensure social justice (mainly the reservation policy) as the state’s philanthropist distributive mechanism for lending some material doles to the deprived sections. Instead, the right wing underplays lower caste identities as being socially deprived classes and reprimands their assertion for social justice as being a disruptive force against Hinduism. The BJP crafts creative cultural strategies that perpetuate the domination of caste and class elites and motivates Dalit-Bahujan sections to find solace in the assertive communal Hindu identity. The domination of the social elites over political and public institutions is thus legitimised under the rubric of Hindu social harmony.

Importantly, the right wing engages with lower caste groups as a cultural and religious subject and exploits their association with Hindu rituals and traditions. The divisionary caste segments are celebrated as ruminants of Hindu civilisation; a new iconography and social history for each fragment are invented (like the evocation of Suheldev as the legend of the ‘Pasi’ caste). Such inventions are not only utilised to institutionalise the social ruptures between lower caste groups but also becomes a potent tool to propagate communal hatred against Muslims.

Parties such as the BSP and the SP have aspired to elevate the Dalit-Bahujan masses as the new political elites. Instead, the BJP’s Machiavellian cultural politics in Uttar Pradesh have been exploiting caste divisions and relegating the lower caste groups as militant participants in a Hindu ‘renaissance’ under the aegis of social elites. The Yogi Adityanath regime has no road map to empower the vast majority of impoverished communities from poverty, social discrimination and political powerlessness. In the past, the rhetoric of inclusive growth or of Hindu unity may have impressed socially marginalised groups but such ideas have no power to liberate the poor and the vulnerable sections from their precarious social and class conditions.

A dignified presence

Hindutva’s hegemonic cultural politics can be defeated by reinventing the ideology of social justice. The proponents of social justice have to demonstrate substantive accountability towards the vulnerable worst-off groups; and they also have to ensure their dignified presence in the mainstream political process. It is required that Dalit-Bahujan politics craft creative strategies to inspire the most vulnerable sections by building a prudent engagement with the cultural diversities and social identities. A dynamic interplay of social justice and socialism would be a lethal ideological weapon to defeat the communal politics of Uttar Pradesh.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal


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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 3:41:25 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/revisiting-the-politics-of-social-justice-in-uttar-pradesh/article38403908.ece