Dalits & Congress

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

On the shift in the process of Dalit empowerment and the Congress' response to the challenge to its hegemony.

THE question of uplifting and empowering the weaker sections of Indian society has generated multidimensional discussions right through the evolution of the nation and given rise to a variety of proposals that have delineated diverse paths to their socio-political emancipation. Starting with the debates leading to the country's Independence, such as the Round Table Conference, to the post-Independence Constituent Assembly debates that helped frame the Indian Constitution to questions in independent India about positive discrimination and affirmative action, this process has moved on, albeit in fits and starts.

A major point of discussion vis-a-vis Dalits, the most oppressed section of Indian society, during the Round Table and later during the Constituent Assembly debates related to the issue of the kind of franchise that they would have in independent India.

The debates involved contentious streams, including the one put forth by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who was the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, seeking separate representation to Dalits on the basis of the idea of positive discrimination. His arguments in favour of this stressed on the low caste identity of Dalits as distinct from caste Hindus. Mahatma Gandhi, on the contrary, rooted unequivocally in favour of universal adult franchise to all in one go.

Gandhi's arguments emphasised the idea that only universal adult suffrage would give Dalits and other backward sections of society a powerful democratic and political instrument that would help them obtain the dignity they deserved in society, as also their share in political power. India's political and administrative history in the following years consistently underscored a mix and match of Gandhi's all one vision and Ambedkar's idea of positive discrimination.

A number of movements and initiatives have advanced Dalit empowerment in different parts of the country in the six decades of Independence and almost all of them have sought to use suffrage as an important democratic and political instrument. For approximately three decades since Independence, the political hegemony in this process remained with the Congress, which was also the ruling party during this period. However, the process itself gained greater momentum since the mid-1980s, and along with it acquired significant changes in terms of qualitative dimensions. This was most marked in two States in the Hindi heartland, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This acceleration witnessed a greater assertion by the Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities in the social and political processes, giving rise to distinctive organisational entities that championed the cause of Dalit and OBC assertive politics.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), built up under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, emerged as the biggest player in the genre of Dalit assertive politics by emerging as a strong force in the country's most populous State, Uttar Pradesh. Other forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh and the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar too emerged with varying degrees of reach among Dalit and OBC communities. With this collapsed the Congress' political hegemony over the process of Dalit empowerment.

Developmental State and the Dalit Question addresses this qualitative shift in the process of Dalit empowerment and how the Congress itself responded to this challenge to its political hegemony, particularly in Madhya Pradesh, yet another Hindi heartland State. In fact, the sub-title of the book, In Madhya Pradesh; Congress Response, makes this focus amply clear. While other Hindi heartland States witnessed the rise to power of parties practising Dalit-OBC assertive politics since the early 1990s itself, the Congress was able to stave off their challenge in Madhya Pradesh. In 2003, the party did lose power but it gave way only to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the second largest mainstream party in the country, and not to any of the caste assertive political challengers.

But despite this focus, the volume is not a mere political narrative. Thematically, it combines a historical-ideological discussion of Dalit empowerment issues; how it reflected in the arena of governance, especially through programmes aimed at social inclusion and economic empowerment; how the limitations of these programmes reflected at the societal level leading to the rapid growth of Dalit assertive organisations; the political, ideological and practical limitations of insular caste assertive politics; and finally a review (perhaps better termed as an umpteenth relook) of the positive discrimination-affirmative action concepts along with the delineation of the possible contours of Dalit empowerment initiatives for the future, particularly in the context of globalisation and the recently oft-repeated bon mot of private-public participation.

Sudha Pai's academic interests and track record do help in taking this related and yet complex discourse forward. Her earlier works such as Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Revolution: The BSP in Uttar Pradesh (2002); Interrogating Social Capital: The Indian Experience (2005; edited with D. Bhattacharyya, Bishnu Mohapatra and Niraja Jayal); and Political Process in Uttar Pradesh: Identity, Economic Reforms and Governance (edited; 2007) had addressed issues relating to the politics of caste and communal assertion, questions of development in Third World societies, globalisation and governance. The discourse is taken forward through 10 chapters divided into four broad sections in Developmental State and the Dalit Question.

At the level of discussions relating to real politic, the book highlights how the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, under the leadership of Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, responded to and withstood the political and organisational challenges thrown by the votaries of Dalit assertive politics, particularly the BSP, in the 10 years between 1993 and 2003. The political and administrative mechanisms that Digvijay Singh and his government employed, such as formulating a land reforms agenda and the efforts to implement it, are dealt with in some detail. Sudha Pai certainly finds great merit in this exercise, though Digvijay Singh and the Congress were not able to make much political capital out of the land reforms initiatives that had come up in the latter part of his second term as Chief Minister.


Central to this appreciation is the Bhopal Document prepared in January 2002 at a conference held in the State capital under the aegis of the Digvijay Singh government. Sudha Pai suggests that this conference was a historic one that led to the formulation of a new model of development with several significant qualitative nuances. To start with, the author is of the view that it attempted to mobilise Dalits and tribal people and raise their standards of living by helping them chart new paths in economic empowerment through their own initiatives aided and helped by the state. It is suggested that this new Dalit agenda constituted an alternative strategy at gaining Dalit and tribal support through state-sponsored economic upliftment programmes that sought to address the increasing privatisation and liberalisation of the economy through private-public participation.

At a more involved level, the argument questions the limitations of a model of state-led development, which seeks to use political power by the enlightened elite to bring in changes from above for weaker sections of society. Furthermore, there is the contention that the Bhopal Document looked forward from concepts such as Positive Discrimination and Affirmation Action.

Sudha Pai writes: The BD (Bhopal Document) has significance for the Indian democracy beyond its immediate political impact. Unlike documents in the past it is not merely a list of new policies for Dalits/tribals to be provided by the state. It introspects upon larger issues such as the relationship between caste and Indian democracy, and whether without removing this hierarchical and oppressive institution India can become a substantive and not merely a procedural democracy.

Yet at the same time it recognises that in the course of progress towards this goal, a balance is required between the need for maintaining the universal values of democracy and the specific discourse of caste. Too much stress on caste question can lead to differences with groups who could be allies in the democratisation of civil society.

According to the author, two important components of the programme that were developed on the basis of the Bhopal declaration are land distribution and supplier diversity (SD). Though SD was essentially advanced as an administrative initiative during the last financial year (2002-03) of Digvijay Singh's second term, Sudha Pai observes that it has greater political and ideological value in the way it was conceived and implemented. SD stressed the need for the introduction of policies of diversity that facilitated suppliership and dealership in the field of business and industry for Dalits in government and private sectors. This apparently had the potential to develop, over time, sections of Dalit and backward communities who have relatively better entrepreneurial abilities. This in turn, it is argued, will help bring down and ultimately remove the marginalisation of these disadvantaged sections from the economic mainstream.

In Sudha Pai's view, this new development initiative is all the more significant in the context of globalisation and the increasing role of the private sector in the socio-economic life of the country. The author is also of the view that sections of the bureaucracy (in the Digvijay Singh regime) were conscientious carriers of the Dalit empowerment agenda. She argues that land distribution to Dalits and the tribal people as well as help from the government to make them retain their hold over the allotted land is required to make SD really effective on the ground.

Obviously, only such a concrete combination between idea and implementation can impart the status of a real path-breaker to this new concept in Dalit empowerment. Notably, the programmes that have come up after the Bhopal Declaration have not been followed up systematically either in Madhya Pradesh or in other parts of the country.

Given the manner in which political forces, including avid advocates of Dalit assertive politics, are grappling with governance and the challenge of adapting Dalit empowerment to changing times, the Bhopal declaration and Sudha Pai's delineation and analysis of the same could well be the trigger for a comprehensive debate, which could throw up more concrete ideas in this direction, adding, deleting or altering some of the tenets of the Bhopal Declaration.

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