The present and future of Dalit politics

Most independent Dalit political parties have not been able to respond to changing aspirations and the identity quest by a section of Dalit communities

October 25, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 10:21 am IST

‘There is a need that they recognise the need to weave a politics of identity with the economics of identity in their programmes and politics’

‘There is a need that they recognise the need to weave a politics of identity with the economics of identity in their programmes and politics’ | Photo Credit: PTI

Dalit politics in India evolved with the rise of various independent Dalit political parties such as the Republican Party of India (RPI), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), other political parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) in Tamil Nadu, and the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in the Andhra Pradesh and adjoining States. Most of these political parties are being gradually weakened with each passing day, which reflects in their political actions. The question being asked frequently is whether there is any future for independent Dalit politics in India. Some people say a deepening of democracy in India may compel every political party to give proper space to Dalits in their politics. In such a situation, the future of the independent Dalit movement seems bleak and dim.

The RPI, which was formed to fulfil the incomplete dreams and desires of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, celebrated its 66th foundation day on October 3; the most influential Dalit political party in North India, the BSP has also completed nearly 40 years. A critical engagement with the present and future of Dalit politics in India is needed.

A decline

It is true that these parties have played an important role in enabling Dalit empowerment in India. They also cultivated an assertive consciousness among Dalits which led to the rise of a number of leaders and cadres in the Dalit communities. But there has been a decline in their organisational capacities and electoral performance. There has been fragmentation and even a desertion by leaders. Many of these Dalit leaders are either moving to dominant regional and national political parties and engaging with them for tickets in elections, posts and political positions, or are forming their own groups. Most of these parties, such as the RPI and the BSP, have lost a large percentage of base voters to the dominant regional and national parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, and in some States to the Congress.

Change by affirmative actions

These developments are not autonomous but are closely linked with processual change among Dalit communities due to the influence of democracy, state-led affirmative actions and rising developmental desires. As a result, the socio-political profile of Dalit communities has changed rapidly over time. The percolation of education at the grassroots and the dissemination of the benefits of the affirmative actions have led to a class of Dalits who now aspire for a proper space in politics.

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

However, while independent Dalit political parties have contributed a lot in leading to the rise of such a section among marginalised communities, they have failed in providing sufficient political space to such a politically aspirant section in Dalit communities, which is why there is a quest for political space in other political parties. Individual ambitions and a growing impatience to gain political power are leading to a drift away from Dalit lead political parties.

The Dalit common masses face struggles and so social welfare schemes launched by the major political parties are a key factor. These welfare schemes work in two ways. On the one hand, these schemes are forging their political relationship with the party in power or a party that might come in power.

Such support provides the basic condition to foster aspiration in even the most marginal Dalit communities. Aspiration is emerging due to state-led democratic interventions and media/social media exposure. These have resulted in the creation of a ‘new Dalit mentality’. If independent Dalit political parties have to retain them, there needs to be a new direction to political mobilisation and transformative political programmes and actions.

Most of the independent Dalit political parties still work in a conventional mode of politics involving clichéd identity, dignity and representation. There is a failure to develop an effective political programme around large goals as there are only mere slogans. There is a failure to understand that a sense of identity is now moving to aspiration — of becoming socio-economically mobile.

Need for democratic functioning

Most of these independent Dalit political parties, including the BSP, are unable to respond to the changing aspirations and identity quest by a section of Dalit communities. There is a need that they recognise the need to weave a politics of identity with the economics of identity in their programmes and politics. Structurally, these parties need to ensure that there is democratic functioning within the party, so that grassroot leaders get proper political space, also restraining any dynastic tendencies that could be developing within these parties. Unfortunately, the BSP and some RPI groups have failed to stop the growth of a dynastic political culture.

A return to the ‘chamcha age’, where BSP leader Kanshi Ram ‘warned Dalits against becoming “chamchas” of the brahmanical establishment’ is unlikely now. Many of those at the forefront of the Dalits are politically competent, assertive and better in negotiating with dominant and mainstream parties than the decade of the 1960s when Kanshi Ram realised that trend. So, there will be a negotiation for proper political space and participation based on their rising political values. Dalit masses, cadres and leaders may move and disperse now among various political parties and possibly create a multi-polar Dalit politics in India.

Badri Narayan is a social scientist and Director of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh

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