OPINION

Back to the Bahujan model?

Losing ground:“The BSP’s crisis is about something more than the party: it is about the nature of identity-based politics that the BSP represents.” Party supporters assemble in Lucknow to offer tribute to Kanshi Ram on his 10th death anniversary.Rajeev Bhatt

Losing ground:“The BSP’s crisis is about something more than the party: it is about the nature of identity-based politics that the BSP represents.” Party supporters assemble in Lucknow to offer tribute to Kanshi Ram on his 10th death anniversary.Rajeev Bhatt  

To retain relevance, the BSP will have to return to the early investments in constructing a Bahujan ideology and organisation that it lost along the way

With only 19 seats in the U.P. Assembly in 2017, and repeated losses in parliamentary and Assembly elections in the last 10 years, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is fighting for its life. The plunge in seats is not accompanied by a similar plunge in votes. But in a ‘first past the post’ electoral system, minor shifts in votes can cause massive shifts in seats.

The BSP’s survival crisis is about something more than the party: it is about the nature of identity-based politics that the BSP represents. To understand why, consider the way in which the two main alternatives, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), appeal to Dalits.

Appeals to Dalits

The Congress appeals to Dalits by promising assimilation into a national mainstream. Its most prominent Dalit leader, Meira Kumar, personifies this promise. The soft-spoken Ms. Kumar, who rose to become India’s first woman Speaker, has opposed a caste census on the grounds that it would deepen caste divisions. “We must mainstream them,” she says of Dalits in her election speeches. In referring to Dalits as “them” rather than “us”, she distances herself not just from some attributes associated with a Dalit identity, but from the identity itself. Moreover, this statement implies that the mainstream is already defined, and that Dalits are passive subjects who must be “brought into” it by more autonomous others.

The BJP appeals to Dalits by promising immersion in a Hindu mainstream. This does not imply passivity as the Congress model does. It calls for self-transformation on the part of all members of the emergent Hindu nation. But in the past, self-transformation has for many Dalits in the BJP taken the form of self-sanitisation. As one BJP regional leader previously told me: “I am neat and clean, not dirty like many other SCs. We are the caste that is nearest to Savarna (upper caste) Hindus. We do clean work.” He had, in his many years in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and BJP, internalised stereotypes about both Dalits and upper castes, and come to accept that the model Hindu was an upper caste Hindu.

The BSP’s form of identity-based assertion, by contrast, is based on pride in Dalit identity as it exists in the present, not on the promise of assimilation or transformation in the future. The contrast was spelt out by Mayawati in her 1985 by-election campaign against Ms. Kumar when she declared flatly, “ Main Chamar ki beti hoon (I am the daughter of a Chamar).” This has been a recurring refrain in her election campaigns although she sometimes switches to calling herself a “ Dalit ki beti (daughter of a Dalit)”.

There is no transformation required to claim this identity. The only transformation that she and Kanshi Ram called for is for Dalits to become more vigilant in the defence of their interests. When I once asked her if she had ever experienced discrimination herself, she said no: “ Main to hoshiar thi (I was vigilant).” The implication was clear. In order to be treated better, fellow Dalits must become vigilant too. This did not require them to alter something fundamental about their identity. In fact, many Dalits who attended BSP meetings in the early years told me about the thrill of self-recognition that they experienced in these meetings. They did not have to become someone else in order to take pride in themselves.

The BSP is not the first to articulate this form of Dalit assertion — it has been voiced earlier, and more consistently, by social reform movements, in a large body of Dalit literature, and by parties and organisations including the Republican Party of India and the Dalit Panthers. But because the BSP repeatedly won control of government, it has had a deeper and wider impact in challenging discrimination against Dalits and in reshaping public discourse.

Altering the public discourse

When the BSP first came to power, Dalits in most parts of India were called Harijans. The BSP focused attention on the patronising assumptions hidden behind the use of that word, popularising the term “Dalit”, once restricted to Maharashtra and parts of the south, nationwide. When the BSP first came to power, B.R. Ambedkar was still portrayed primarily as a Dalit leader. The BSP stimulated a rewriting of history that recognised him as a national, and not only Dalit, icon. When the BSP first came to power, the practice of naming thousands of roads and bridges and airports and buildings and government schemes after a single family — the Nehru-Gandhis — had become so routine as to be unremarkable. But when the BSP began erecting statues to Kanshi Ram and Ms. Mayawati, any criticism of this as a self-aggrandising move had to acknowledge also the older forms of self-aggrandisation that had become acceptable in democratic politics. When the BSP came to power there were only the beginnings of awareness about the upper caste bias in the English-language media. But when the BSP began to ignore the English media altogether — and to win elections despite that — it brought the question of media bias front and centre. The BSP’s form of Dalit assertion, in other words, changed the mainstream discourse rather than simply “being brought into it”.

So why did the BSP lose, especially when its healthy vote share suggests that it likely retained much of its core, predominantly Dalit, vote base? The answer lies in its failure and the BJP’s success, in crafting the right caste-based combinations.

For the BSP, the winning of elections has always depended on what its workers call the “plus” factor. In every constituency, it counted on the votes of Dalits plus some section of others (backward castes and Muslims initially, and upper castes eventually). For the BJP, it has depended on what could be called the “minus” factor. As one party worker in U.P said to me: “ Hum Muslims ko minus karke chaltein hain (We proceed by subtracting Muslims).” The BJP aimed to build a winning vote by cobbling together the support of Hindu upper castes, backward castes and Dalits — everyone but the Muslims. This is an old strategy for the BJP, taken to a new, more systematic, level in 2017.

But a substantial difference has emerged over time in the terms in which both parties construct these combinations.

Weakened infrastructure

In the beginning, the BSP sought to construct these combinations through painstaking ideological mobilisation. Under Kanshi Ram’s leadership, the BSP held regular cadre camps, study sessions and political rallies in which it propagated a vision of the Bahujan Samaj as a rainbow coalition of subaltern groups. The BSP’s cultural pantheon has from its inception included important figures from across these groups: in addition to Ambedkar, it includes Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru, Chhatrapati Sahuji Maharaj, and Periyar. It also built a second- and third-line leadership from among backward castes and other Bahujan categories through the allocation of posts in the party organisation.

Electoral arithmetic — alliances and tickets — was always an important part of this effort. In fact, Kanshi Ram chose the name “Bahujan”, or “majority”, for his new party, not only because of its association with non-Brahmin social movements but also because the name signalled that this party had the numbers to be a viable winner. The arithmetic was backed by an ideological and organisational infrastructure. Over the years, the BSP stopped investing in this infrastructure, relying on the promise of power to compensate. But a party that depends only on winning cannot withstand repeated losses and that is why the party is now in such dire straits.

BJP outreach, Modi resonance

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar, by contrast, back their appeal to Dalits and backward castes by a strong ideological and organisational infrastructure. This infrastructure has become stronger and more innovative at a time when the BSP’s infrastructure has weakened. The Sangh Parivar has also begun to redefine the model Hindu in a way that incorporates Dalit and backward caste cultural symbols. In 1983, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh created the Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Assimilation Platform), with the goal of harmonising “the Phule-Ambedkar thought with the Hindutva philosophy”. In 1989, the Vishva Hindu Parishad ensured that it was a Dalit who laid the first brick for the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The Sangh Parivar also has a large network of service organisations for Dalits and other subaltern groups. The BJP also has a strong organisation which has produced a credible second- and third-line leadership from these groups.

And then there is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has become a transformative figure in the knitting together of these coalitions. Mr. Modi claims his backward caste identity proudly. “The next decade,” he has said repeatedly, “will belong to the Dalits and the backwards.” This is a remarkable statement for the leader of India’s largest upper caste-dominated party to make. It is responsible in no small measure for the BJP’s success in crafting coalitions between subaltern castes and upper castes that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

At the same time, Mr. Modi’s public persona reinvents the notion of self-transformation embedded in BJP ideology. He acknowledges his caste identity without being defined by it, illustrating by example a way to transcend caste without denial or distancing. Further, the narrative of his own transformation from a tea seller’s son to Prime Minister suggests that it need not mean self-sanitisation, or a disowning of identity, but self-realisation: an honouring of the deepest aspirations associated with that identity. It is a powerful appeal especially in the new economy. And Ms. Mayawati’s persona does not have the same power against it that it did against Ms. Kumar in the pre-liberalisation India of 1985.

If the BSP is not to become just another blip in the political landscape, it will have to return to the early investments in constructing a Bahujan ideology and organisation that it lost along the way. What is more, it will also have to adapt its ideology in the face of a new political opponent. This is difficult, maybe unlikely. But, given the small shift in votes required for a large shift in seats, it is not impossible. If the BSP preserves a space in the political arena, the gainer will be not just the BSP but a healthy democratic discourse. If it does not, the loser will also be not just the BSP, but that discourse and all of the rest of us.

Kanchan Chandra is Professor of Politics, New York University, and the author of ‘Why Ethnic Parties Succeed’ (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Recommended for you