The limitations of Ambedkarite Dalit politics today

The absence of a national political agenda, ruptures in ideology and a weak response in taking on the right-wing juggernaut are affecting the revival of Dalit politics

April 18, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

‘In the run-up to the general election 2024, the Dalit parties could have presented a new outlook and innovative political programme to influence Dalit-Bahujan voters’

‘In the run-up to the general election 2024, the Dalit parties could have presented a new outlook and innovative political programme to influence Dalit-Bahujan voters’ | Photo Credit: AP

Organising grand events and celebrations in the month of April to commemorate Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary has become a national ritual now. These only showcase the presence of a vibrant and robust Dalit mass, engaged to democratise the mainstream public culture. However, such a display of national Dalit unity around B.R. Ambedkar’s iconography is unavailable in the political sphere. Instead, there is a growing splintering in Ambedkar’s political legacies today, making Dalit political parties a passive and relegated force.

Ambedkar envisaged a robust arrival of subaltern social groups, mainly the Dalit-Bahujan mass, as the prime claimant of state power and visualised that his political party, the Republican Party of India (RPI), would form a greater social alliance with the Adivasis, poor working classes and landless agrarian labourers and strengthen the movement against an exploitative feudal and Brahmanical order. In the post-Ambedkar period, the major task of Dalit politics has been to follow Ambedkar’s legacy and establish the Dalit-Bahujan as the key transformative force in democratic institutions. However, even a cursory examination of contemporary Ambedkarite Dalit politics would showcase that it has disintegrated into segments, and lacks a visionary leadership, strong social base and effective political strategies to re-emerge as a crucial player in democratic battles.

Ideological camaraderie

In the post-Independence democratic churning, a powerful arrival of agrarian backward castes in major States as the new ruling elites was witnessed. In the mid-1990s, the nation also experienced a powerful Dalit political leadership, especially the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

The BSP emerged as a significant political force and opened the possibility that the politics of social justice would be a game changer in India’s democracy. In Maharashtra, during the same period, a new beginning was witnessed with the arrival of Republican-Bahujan leaders such as Prakash Ambedkar and Ramdas Athawale on the political turf. Similarly, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) under Thol. Thirumavalvan in Tamil Nadu and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) led by Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar provided space for a dignified and robust articulation of the Dalit political cause and re-introduced them as a crucial player in democratic battles. Though there was no alliance between these political outfits, they had an ideological camaraderie around the iconography of Ambedkar, had a committed Dalit social base, and often flagged the slogans of social justice.

Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar on the future of Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh

Periodically, even on their own political turf, these parties vacillated from core ideological principles. The BSP joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1995 to form the first State government headed by Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. It was followed by Ram Vilas Paswan joining the BJP led-alliance in 1999 and securing an important portfolio in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet.

In Maharashtra, Ramdas Athawale distanced his political outfit from the radical ideas of the Dalit movement and formed an electoral alliance with the BJP in 2011. Only a few among the Dalit parties, such as the VCK and Prakash Ambedkar’s political outfits (recently renamed as Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi- VBA) retain a consistent anti-BJP position and formed only alliances with the secular parties.

The challenge of Hindutva hegemony

The aggressive ascendance of the BJP as a powerful mobiliser of Dalit-Bahujan groups under the Hindutva umbrella, has been met with little challenge by the Dalit parties. These parties lack strategic interventions, innovative slogans and a capable leadership to motivate socially marginalised communities to stay away from Hindutva’s hegemonic cultural paradigm. Further, these parties have been limited to certain geographical boundaries as many States with a significant Dalit population such as Punjab (32%), Bengal (24%), Himachal Pradesh (26%) and Haryana (21%), and parties such as the RPI or BSP failed to mobilise Dalits. Other marginalised communities such as Adivasis and Muslims also hesitate to vote for Dalit political outfits overwhelmingly as their ideological commitment and capacity to win the electoral battles are often questioned.

In the run-up to the general election 2024, the Dalit parties could have presented a new outlook and innovative political programme to influence Dalit-Bahujan voters. For example, announcing a unified political bloc of Ambedkarite parties, especially of the BSP, VCK and VBA, could have helped set up a national Dalit-Bahujan agenda to challenge the current political establishment. Though other political parties have often joined hands to secure their class and social interests, the Dalit parties have remained attached to regional specificities and lacked the political imagination to revamp social justice politics. Most importantly, in the crucial political battle against the BJP, parties such as the VBA and BSP have decided to go it alone.

The refusal by these parties to form a unified secular front with mainstream Opposition parties may allow them to remain visible in the democratic processes. However, they seem unanswerable to the growing anxieties and troubles that the poor Dalit-Bahujan mass is facing under the Hindutva regime. There is a visible fear that the BJP’s return to power for a third term in India would also relegate the prospect of social justice politics and may disturb India’s constitutional democracy.

Segmented and powerless, Dalit-Bahujan politics today overtly shows that there are visible deviants into Ambedkar’s political legacies. The absence of a national political agenda, ruptures in political ideology and limitations in challenging the right-wing juggernaut have hampered the revival of Dalit politics today. A new generation of Dalit-Bahujan leaders and intellectuals must emerge to cross these obstacles and rediscover a transformative political alternative — one that is truthful to Ambedkar’s political principles.

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

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