This is a must-read for understanding why Dalits are attracted to the Hindu right wing.
The emergence of Dalit political consciousness, the strengthening of the Dalit movement, and finally its consolidation in terms of political gain have been discussed widely in academic writings. We also have enough literature on the political collapse of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. Still, many questions remain unanswered on issues that are more complex than political phenomena, with socio-economic and cultural nuances.
Maya, Modi, Azad: Dalit Politics in the Time of Hindutva
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The dominance of Hindutva politics, its appropriation of marginal groups and their symbols, the shift of Dalit votes to the BJP, the BJP’s welfare politics, and the RSS’ growing influence among marginal sections strongly indicate the end of the era of identity politics, and a faint hope of revival of Dalit politics. However, it would be hasty to jump to a conclusion on the revival of Dalit politics and the future of identity politics in India, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Although the BJP’s big electoral victory and the expansion of right-wing politics and strategies across diverse groups and their ideologies are a serious threat, there is something more complex happening that is yet to be deciphered.
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The book under review, written by the eminent political scientist Sudha Pai and the brilliant researcher Sajjan Kumar, helps us understand the present and future of Dalit politics through rigorous documentation of the scattered voices of Dalit assertions and their hidden potential to reclaim the lost domain of Dalit politics in Indian democracy. The book maps the shifts in Dalit politics with a focus on Uttar Pradesh because this is the State where Mayawati dreamt of forming an “Umbrella Party” with a Dalit core. She succeeded in doing so but could not keep them together for long.
Disillusionment with ‘Sarvajana’
The discontent in the BSP, arising out of the hegemony of some Dalit communities, and the disillusionment with the “Sarvajana” experiment led to fragmentation. This paved the way for Narendra Modi, who was able to mobilise small and scattered Dalit groups under the fold of a broader Hindutva identity.
Another dimension the book covers is the emerging Dalit leadership, with leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad trying to fill the void left by the BSP in Dalit politics by resurrecting the Dalit cause and reinstating the ideologies of B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram while challenging Hindutva hegemony.
The authors examine the inability of Dalit politics to turn Dalit anger against atrocities and injustice into votes. They have highlighted two contrasting trends in Dalit politics: the political protest of Dalits for social justice and their electoral preference for the right wing. There is a detailed analysis of why parties with a Dalit core are unable to translate community anger into votes.
The book is divided into three sections. Each section methodologically explains the hidden dynamics of Dalit politics and highlights the normally ignored trajectories that shaped the shift of Dalits towards the Hindutva fold.
In the first section, “Building a Rainbow Party with Dalit Core”, the authors discuss Mayawati’s Sarvajana experiment with its stronghold over Dalit votes, its grand success, and the BSP’s power of transferability of votes. They show how, with electoral success, deepening democratic consciousness gave rise to new aspirations that led to the fragmentation of the Dalit community. They also cover extensively how Sarvajana and the rising aspirations of Dalits created a serious crisis for identity politics. This section is the strongest part of the book with its analysis of the BSP’s success and the inherent limitation of its social base that finally led to an existential crisis for Dalit politics.
- Archana Singh says the book helps us understand the present and future of Dalit politics through rigorous documentation of the scattered voices of Dalit assertion and their hidden potential to reclaim the lost domain of Dalit politics in Indian democracy.
- The book maps the shifts in Dalit politics with a focus on Uttar Pradesh because this is the State where Mayawati dreamt of forming an “Umbrella Party” with a Dalit core. She succeeded in doing so but could not keep them together for long.
- The authors examine the inability of Dalit politics to turn Dalit anger against atrocities and injustice into votes.
Inclusion and appropriation
The second section, “Dalit Interphase with Hindutva”, talks about the BJP’s strategy of inclusion and appropriation that led to a shifting of Dalit votes. The authors discuss the “new welfarism” project of Modi that helped project him as the “messiah” of the poor. The BJP’s marketing of itself and management of elections have also worked as accelerating factors. This section deals with how all these factors drew disenchanted sections towards the BJP.
But this section lacks rigour in its analysis of the BJP’s socio-cultural strategies that brought Dalits into the party’s fold. These amount to much more than appropriation and welfarism.
The third section, “New Stirring: Emerging Dalit Organisations”, discusses the emergence of small and regional Dalit organisations with a social justice agenda. Their aim is to provide a platform for Dalit protests against atrocities, stop non-Jatav communities from joining the Hindutva fold, and revive Ambedkarite consciousness through everyday struggles. The authors discuss the emergence of new leaders and look at their potential to step in where Mayawati fell short, give the weakening Dalit movement a boost, overcome Dalit fragmentation and regain the support of smaller Dalit communities.
But a more in-depth analysis is needed to understand why all Ambedkarite organisations have failed to fill the void left by the BSP. What are the obstacles they face in coming together for the common Dalit cause?
The strength of this work is that the authors have covered a broad canvas comprising different phases of Dalit politics. They have substantiated their arguments with field data to demonstrate the heterogeneity of Dalits in terms of socio-cultural differences and the consolidation that happened under one flag to ensure the BSP’s electoral success. But the experiment eventually failed because of push factors such as the dominance of some communities in Dalit politics, deepening democracy, and rising aspirations of new middle-class Dalits, and pull factors such as the BJP’s appropriation of Dalit symbols under the Hindutva flag, welfarism to attract people at the grassroots and incorporation of smaller Bahujan communities into that party’s fold.
That said, some important factors in the BJP’s wooing of Dalits have not been explored adequately. Additionally, the veiled aspirations and desires of Dalits need more scrutiny. This has been done in another scholarly work, Republic of Hindutva, written by Badri Narayan, who talks about the methods of the RSS and the BJP extensively to explain how the BJP took over identity politics by providing a sense of pride to the small and fragmented Dalit groups. The sewa karya of the RSS, which was a major driving force, and welfare politics of the state should be probed to understand these shifts in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. Even the emergence of “beneficiary consciousness”, which superseded caste identity and which Badri Narayan discussed in different fora during the 2022 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, may add to our understanding of the changes in the State’s Dalit politics..
One very important point that may substantiate the arguments of the book is the hidden desire of the smaller and invisible Dalit communities to be identified as a part of the broader Hindutva identity because of their memories of the past. To turn their aspiration into reality, they shifted towards Hindutva. The BJP, on its part, had already started moving towards communities with culturally loaded mobilisational and appropriation devices.
The authors suggest that the tactical and ideological aspects of the Dalits’ shift towards Hindutva are not separate. But they seem to have overlooked the danger of making new ideological paradigms even under temporary and tactical shifts. Another aspect that has been left out is the way Mayawati’s language of support for Sarvajana has changed in tone and texture to the extent that Dalits are not able to associate themselves with it.
In a nutshell, this is a must-read book for all those who want to understand the future of Dalit politics, the possibility of the return of Dalit votes to the BSP from the BJP, or the chances of fragmented Dalit groups loaded with democratic consciousness making a new move to explore better new options. In case of such shifts, they may feel more associated with newly created paradigms and may become disenchanted with previous associations. This book offers a lens to decode the puzzle that is Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh and expresses the faint hope that an able leadership and strong opposition may change the scene.
Archana Singh is Associate Professor, GovindBallabh, Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj.