Whither Dalit Politics?

Strangely enough mainstr-eam dalit politicians never raise the issue of caste annihilation they talk a lot about caste but what all they demand with a little bit of authority and aggression is reservation. Reservation in government jobs, Reservation in Assembly, Reservation in Parliament! But reservation alone cannot lift a huge marginalised population otherwise condemned as Dalits from sub-human conditions they are being forced to live in. The Dalit community can produce a Jagjivan Ram—or for that matter a Ram Vilas Paswan—but they are not the real representatives of Dalit toilers. They support the Rams and Paswans only to see at the end that they have very little say over their own affairs.

Dalit politics is an outcome of BR Ambedkar's initiatives. The Republican Party of India formed in 1956 succeeded the Scheduled Castes Federation (1942) that followed the Independent Labour Party (1935) and Depressed Classes Federation (1930). RPI never won far fewer seats than would match the SC (Dalit) population. It has since the 1980s suffered many splits with fragmentation elector ally weakening all groups. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founded in 1984 aimed to unite people opressed by identity, namely Dalits, OBCs, Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and religious minorities making 85% of the population. It became a party of the Dalits and was soon among the largest national parties, polling 4.16% of the vote in 1999, to reach a peak of 6.17% (21 seats) in 2009 and shrink to 4.19% (no seats) in 2014 and 3.69% (10 seats) in 2019. It dropped from the third largest vote gatherer in 2014 to fourth in 2019. This perhaps points to the stagnation of identity politics without ideology. The BSP is, however, likely to retain its vote base in Uttar Pradesh for some time.

Caste politics has limitations, and Dalit identity is no monolith. The way electorates are structured compels Dalits candidates to seek the support of major political parties. Unprincipled alliances are a flaw of Dalit parties craving electoral success, and hurts broad-based unity to fight for social justice. In politics without clear ideology, personal and sectarian rivalries come to the fore so that Dalit politics risks dividing the Dalits.

The Samajwadi Party born in 1992, after the Janata Dal fell apart. Based largely in Uttar Pradesh, it enjoys the support of an large OBC group as well as Muslims. It has on occasion had the support of segments of other smaller castes including Dalits. It has been consistent in its aversion for the BJP, but is troubled by internal squabbles that deny it potential to become an all-India political force, despite strength in Uttar Pradesh.

OBCs comprise the largest section of the population but their social class and status within the caste structure is diverse. Uniting OBCs as a group is far less feasible than uniting Dalits, as loyalty based on individual castes or caste clusters is strong among OBCs. There are, however, instances of cross-caste collaboration in elections as in Uttar Pradesh; and there are also instances of opportunist alliances falling flat as in the case of PMK and Viduthalai Chiruththaikal nine years ago in Tamil Nadu.

Adivasis, who are 8.6% of India's population, are economically, socially and educationally the most deprived people in India. To this should be added the denial of language and cultural rights and moves to assimilate their religious identity to Hinduism. Their existence as a people is under rising threat from the hunger of India's big capitalists and foreign partners for mineral deposits in their territory. Adivasi land also face the threat of land alienation for development projects. Organising Adivasis to fight for their rights has been harder than organising oppressed castes, and only the militant Left has taken up their cause in some parts of India.

Reservation of Parliamentary and Legislative Assembly seats did not help Adivasis to assert themselves as a people, except in states in the north east where they are a majority .In Jharkhand, a state created through prolonged struggle, Adivasi political parties at best bargain with a strong all-India party for sharing power in the state, and could betray Adivasi rights to serve the interests of big investors. Parties representing the SCs and Adivasis, let alone OBCs, are easy prey to opportunism. Thus they may fail to be loyal partners of a programme for social justice, as electoral arithmetic (including caste and regional factors and interest groups) can undermine any alliances other than one built by mass mobilisation with a minimum common programme. What seems clear is that Dalit electoral politics now serves the interests of an emergent Dalit elite, and prospects are bleak for electoral politics to redress injustices suffered by Dalits. The case for reliance on electoral politics is even weaker for the Adivasis.

Back to Home Page

Vol. 52, No. 29, Jan 19 - 25, 2020