The Bahujan movement needs to reinvent itself

The Dalit movement in north India started taking shape under the cultural and intellectual leadership of Swami Achhootanand and his Adi Hindu Movement in the 1920s. Active in areas that are now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the movement received new momentum when the B.R. Ambedkar-led Republican Party of India (RPI) began to work during the Independence struggle and after. The RPI tried to expand in the Hindi belt, but it managed to impact only a few parts of U.P. in the 1960s and ’70s. The Congress, the ruling party then, empowered the Dalits through various Constitution amendments, laws and policies. The Arya Samaj movement also helped to provide an identity and respect to various Dalit communities.

The major turn came in the 1980s and ’90s when the Bahujan movement, under the leadership of Kanshi Ram, started influencing the society and politics of north India. The Bahujan movement had a broader definition of the oppressed, and included the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). It also included lower-caste Muslims (Azlafs). Mayawati emerged as the leader of the Bahujan movement after Kanshi Ram’s death. She went on to become U.P. Chief Minister four times.

Failure to mobilise small communities

The Bahujan movement, which transformed into a political party called the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is now facing a crisis. In the last few years, its vote share has been declining. Though the BSP has continued to enjoy the support of the numerically strong Jatavs in U.P., it has failed to continue to garner support from the other major Dalit communities by mobilising them under the Dalit-Bahujan frame of politics. Their votes are also fragmented among the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. As a result, they are not being able to acquire electoral clout that could put pressure on political parties to work for their development. The Bahujan movement in U.P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is centred mostly around Dalit communities that are visible and large in number. It has to penetrate deeper to reach communities that are relatively invisible, numerically smaller, and voiceless.

The influence of the Bahujan movement among the Most Backward Classes (MBCs), OBCs and STs is also waning. Many of them supported the BSP in the first and second phases of Bahujan mobilisation. Kanshi Ram had successfully created a rainbow coalition of a few OBC and MBC, and many SC, communities. However such a coalition broke down in a later phase of Bahujan politics. The movement is also failing to mobilise the Muslims who are part of the Bahujan communities. Kanshi Ram had sought to bring them under one umbrella.

Leadership crisis

Another crisis is that the Bahujan movement has failed to cultivate powerful leaders at the top level. Sone Lal Patel, who founded the Apna Dal (Sonelal), and Om Prakash Rajbhar, who leads the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, are products of the Bahujan movement. They may have emerged as the second rung of leaders of the movement, but due to some reason or the other, the BSP failed to keep them under its fold. Now, many young leaders, such as Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan and Jignesh Mevani, who are not satisfied with Ms. Mayawati and the BSP-led Bahujan movement, are challenging the form and content of the contemporary Bahujan movement. They are challenging the BSP’s sarvajan’ idea.

The Bahujan movement needs to revive itself as a movement and take up many social issues in its agenda which are linked to the empowerment of Dalits. The BSP needs to expand among the most marginalised communities. The BSP has found new ways of reaching out to the people, such as through social media, but it needs to also retain the traditional ways of mobilisation such as organising small meetings in Dalit localities.

The BSP’s performance this election will decide its future. Given that the SP and the BSP are fighting the election together, this will be a test of Ms. Mayawati’s capacity of transferring the BSP’s vote base to the SP. The possibility of the Dalit base shifting to the Congress will also be a cause of concern for the Bahujan movement, given the possibility of a revival of the party in north India.

Badri Narayan is Director, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 1:16:35 AM |

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