Strategic choice

Print edition : July 03, 2009

Meira Kumar with President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on their way to the joint session of Parliament, which the President addressed on June 4.-RAJEEV BHATT

THE unanimous election of Meira Kumar as the countrys first Dalit and woman Lok Sabha Speaker is widely evaluated as a signal emphasising the seriousness with which the ruling Congress and other sections of the countrys polity hold the idea of empowerment of underprivileged sections such as the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and women.

While this evaluation is indeed valid, Meira Kumars elevation does contain a more nuanced political message too. This is a message that Meira Kumar herself has time and again sought to express forcefully during her 25-year-old political career. It is that the politics of Dalit assertion and womens empowerment should not give in to sectarian impulses but should develop as part of broader trends in mainstream polity.

In many ways, this political line marks a continuation of the direction pursued by the legendary Jagjivan Ram, Meira Kumars late father, who was part of many governments in independent India, starting with the first Congress Ministry led by Jawaharlal Nehru. This line held sway over the countrys polity for nearly four decades even though many other proponents of the politics of Dalit assertion found this too soft and believed that it failed to establish firmly the rights of the underprivileged sections.

Since the late 1980s, proponents of the latter view and representatives of Other Backward Classes (OBC)-oriented identity politics began to rise, pushing aside the accommodative line of the Congress, represented by Jagjivan Ram and Meira Kumar. Organisations such as the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) grew in strength during this period, and the Meira Kumar line of thinking failed to receive acceptance. Meira Kumars elevation to the position of Lok Sabha Speaker after the 2009 general elections is a pointer, in many ways, that the moderate stream in the politics of Dalit uplift is coming into the reckoning, at least among a sizable section of the electorate.

The election results signified a rout for the LJP, while the BSP, which had contested the elections projecting party leader Mayawati as the potential first Dalit Prime Minister of the country, failed to live up to expectations. In order to buttress the first Dalit Prime Minister claim, Mayawati too had sought to push forward an assimilative political line, which placed Dalit-Brahmin bhaichara (brotherhood) at the centre of its political-electoral scheme.

However, as the results proved, this positioning and the scheme under which it was advanced was not acceptable to large sections of the population, including Dalits. It was the assimilative and accommodative line of the Congress that found greater acceptance.

By positioning Meira Kumar in the important constitutional position of Speaker, the Congress leadership has also signalled that it is interested in strengthening the accommodative line and making it a more decisive factor in Dalit assertive politics. Meira Kumars own statements on assumption of office are in keeping with this perception. She said that as the countrys first Dalit and woman Speaker she hoped to bring a new perspective to the functioning of the Lok Sabha, but added that her primary agenda as the presiding officer would not be guided by gender- or community-specific parameters. The Lok Sabha is the House of the people. The issues of the people have to be addressed in their entirety here. My effort would be to facilitate such wholesome application to the issues of the people (see interview).

At the level of womens empowerment, the leadership of the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has already affirmed its commitment to one-third reservation for women in Parliament and State legislatures, but it is expecting certain roadblocks. The opposition to the Womens Reservation Bill by OBC-oriented parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) and the political games that the Bharatiya Janata Party may be tempted to play using the regional parties are the factors behind this sense of foreboding. Many observers feel that, with Meira Kumars elevation, the Congress-UPA leadership has at least the consolation that it has put a woman in an important constitutional position.

Jagjivan Ram, the legendary Dalit leader. He served as a Minister in several Congress governments and also as Deputy Prime Minister.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Meira Kumar fits in, broadly, with an accommodative and assimilative political approach at the personal level too. The cosmopolitan traits in her are evident from the number of languages she knows. She is fluent in Hindi, English, Spanish, Bhojpuri and Sanskrit. Her educational qualifications include a degree in law and a postgraduate degree in English. Her success in civil service examinations led to her selection as an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer in 1973. Her tenure with the IFS lasted 12 years and included stints with the Indian missions in Madrid and London and the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.

Her hobbies range from reading and rereading Kalidasa in Sanskrit to rifle shooting. A five-time member of the Lok Sabha, she won her first election from Bijnore in Uttar Pradesh in 1985, defeating two stalwarts of Dalit politics, Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan. Later, elections were won from Delhi and Sasaram, the constituency in Bihar held by her father for eight consecutive terms.

Meira Kumars selection as the Speaker also marked, in a sense, the full rehabilitation of the Jagjivan Ram family in the Congress. Though he was part of several Congress governments and had held important portfolios such as Defence, Communications, Labour and Railways, Jagjivan Ram fell out of favour with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency (1975-77). Jagjivan Ram had made bold to quit the Congress, after the announcement of general elections in February 1977, and was instrumental in ensuring the defeat of the Indira Gandhi regime.

He became part of the first non-Congress Janata Party government which came up in 1977 under the leadership of Morarji Desai. The government collapsed in less than two years, and Jagjivan Rams efforts to rustle up support to become Prime Minister did not succeed. He was disillusioned with the turn of events and, towards the end of his life, made a return to the Congress. Rajiv Gandhi, who became Prime Minister following the death of Indira Gandhi, facilitated this return. It was at this time that Meira Kumar too joined politics and became a Lok Sabha member.

Even so, the position accorded to Meira Kumar was not on a par with the position that Jagjivan Ram had as a Dalit leader in the Nehru dispensation. Meira Kumar was one among many Dalit Congress leaders, such as Sushil Kumar Shinde, Krishna Tirath and Kumari Selja. By any yardstick, Shinde was considered to be the frontrunner in this group. However, with the trends witnessed in the 2009 elections, the Congress leadership, particularly Sonia Gandhi, seems to have estimated that Meira Kumar is best suited to represent the partys commitment to accommodative and assimilative Dalit-oriented politics. The Congress president could have of course chosen other politicians, such as Selja and Krishna Tirath, but by selecting Meira Kumar, Sonia Gandhi has signalled to the Jagjivan Ram family that it is back with full honours in the Congress scheme of things.

Clearly, the larger messages that emanate from Meira Kumars appointment mark a historic shift in the countrys polity. It is a shift which indicates that the progressive streak in the countrys polity is indeed strong. However, it remains to be seen whether, and how far, the nuanced messages of Meira Kumars elevation according importance to assimilative and accommodative Dalit-oriented politics as opposed to sectarian pursuit of Dalit assertive politics live up to expectations.

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