The changing face of Dalit politics

New Age leaders are changing the narrative of Dalit politics by focussing on pragmatic issues rather than on personality cults and identity politics.

Published : Jun 25, 2024 14:36 IST - 11 MINS READ

Chandrashekhar Azad, who won from Nagina despite both the BSP and the SP fielding candidates against him, at the Parliament House during the First Session of the 18th Lok Sabha in New Delhi.

Chandrashekhar Azad, who won from Nagina despite both the BSP and the SP fielding candidates against him, at the Parliament House during the First Session of the 18th Lok Sabha in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: ANI

Dalit politics in north India seems to be in a state of flux, with fewer Dalit mascots holding sway over community votes. Given the upward social mobility among Dalits and their growing disenchantment with the status quo, they no longer want to be mere foot soldiers of a particular outfit or captive voters in furtherance of a personality cult. The beneficiaries of this shift have been a slew of opposition parties.

This represents a reversal of the politics that has played out since 2014, when the BJP benefited both from the marginalisation of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and from its alliance with specific Dalit groups such as that of Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar or Ramdas Athawale in Maharashtra.

LISTEN: The 2024 Lok Sabha election saw New Age leaders take over to change the narrative of Dalit politics by focussing on pragmatic issues rather than on personality cults and identity politics.

Of the 84 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Scheduled Castes, the party won 46 in 2019 but only 30 this time. The Congress, meanwhile, has tripled its tally of reserved seats from 6 to 19.

Also Read | Caste returns to centre stage in the 2024 Lok Sabha election

Of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, 17 are reserved for SCs. Of these, this time the BJP won 8, the Samajwadi Party (SP) 7, the Congress 1, and Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan (Aazad Samaj Party-Kanshi Ram) 1. A CSDS-Lokniti Survey published in The Hindu says the SP-Congress alliance won 56 per cent of the non-Jatav Dalit votes and 25 per cent of Jatav Dalit votes in Uttar Pradesh this time. The change could have a long-term impact for the State’s politics.

Faizabad a turning point?

Indeed, the victories of Awadhesh Prasad (SP) of the Dalit Pasi caste in Ayodhya, a non-reserved constituency and a crucible of Hindutva politics, against the BJP’s two-term MP Lallu Singh, and of seven other Dalits in reserved (SC) constituencies signals a significant change in the frosty relationship of Dalits with the SP. The latter has hardly received Dalit votes since the infamous Lucknow Guest House incident of 1995, when its workers allegedly attacked BSP chief Mayawati after she withdrew support to the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh.

Even in 2019, Dalit voters remained cold to the SP despite the party being in an alliance with the BSP and ensuring a transfer of its votes to the BSP. As a result, the BSP, which scored nothing in 2014, won 10 Lok Sabha seats, while the SP barely managed to retain 5 seats.

Awadhesh Prasad, the SP leader who won from Faizabad, which includes Ayodhya, on June 5.

Awadhesh Prasad, the SP leader who won from Faizabad, which includes Ayodhya, on June 5. | Photo Credit: ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/REUTERS

This year, without the alliance and contesting 48 seats, the BSP’s vote share has come down to 9.39 per cent from the 19.43 per cent it had in 2019. The BSP failed to get substantial sections of both the Jatav votes and the non-Jatav Dalit votes. For a party that gave Uttar Pradesh its first Dalit Chief Minister who completed a full term (2007-12), this is by all accounts a huge setback.

The result also signals the return of the Dalit vote to the Congress, which has ruled the Hindi heartland in the past with its Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim combination. While the Congress’ performance in direct fights against the BJP has generally been abysmal, in this election its SC candidates—Sanjana Jatav and Bhajan Lal Jatav from Bharatpur and Karauli Dholpur in Rajasthan, and Manoj Kumar from Sasaram in Bihar—emerged victorious against formidable BJP candidates.

“Dalit aspirations and Dalit consciousness will take new forms and shapes even if Mayawati’s BSP does not revive itself,” said Prof. Anand Kumar, a retired professor from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “This time the SP showed some wisdom by breaking free from the Muslim-Yadav mould; the number of seats for other castes, such as Rajbhar and Nishad, in the OBC bloc has also increased.” A case in point is the victory of the SP’s Rambhual Nishad in Sultanpur against the former Union Minister Maneka Gandhi of the BJP.

According to Kumar, all sections seeking direct political representation is a new phenomenon. So is Chandrashekhar Azad’s victory in Uttar Pradesh’s Nagina. Kumar called it a warning signal for both the Congress and the BJP that Dalits will create their own leadership if they are not given space. The new consciousness, he added, was a sign of the decline of capitalist and dynastic politics, as evidenced by the emergence of new leaders with no political lineage.

The BSP’s vote share has been falling even in Assembly elections. In the 2007 Assembly election, the BSP had a vote share of 30.4 per cent and 206 of the 403 seats; in 2012 it fell to 25.91 per cent (80 seats), in 2017 to 22.23 per cent (19 seats), and in 2022 to 12.88 per cent (1 seat). That is, nearly half of the around 22 per cent Dalit vote in the State had shifted.

Marginalisation of Mayawati

The 2024 Lok Sabha election too signals a shift of the Dalit vote, this time to the SP-Congress. Evidently, Dalits are not returning to the BSP, especially the non-Jatavs. With Mayawati’s marginalisation opening up space in Uttar Pradesh’s polity, Dalits are set to become major beneficiaries of competitive Dalit politics.

In his book Behenji: The Rise and Fall of Mayawati, the political columnist Ajay Bose says: “Since her Dalit base is spread evenly across Uttar Pradesh and not concentrated in pockets, the BSP has always had a big problem with the first past the post system. It has invariably struggled to win [seats] with only the support of its core base.”

Awadhesh Prasad’s win in Ayodhya, despite a high-voltage Ram temple consecration ceremony in January, could well be the tipping point for secular politics in north India. And the OBC-Dalit-Muslim consolidation could well trip up Hindutva politics.

Azad’s victory in Nagina too has to be seen against this backdrop. He won despite both the BSP and the SP fielding candidates against him. Azad, unlike Mayawati, has followed the path of aggressive Dalit politics since he set up the Bhim Army in 2015, and his rise in Uttar Pradesh has been gradual; in the 2022 Assembly election, he contested against Chief Minister Adityanath from the Gorakhpur urban seat and lost.

Harish S. Wankhede, Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU, told Frontline that Azad’s victory was unlike that of conventional Dalit politicians and suggests that there are significant recipients of radical Ambedkarite consciousness in the current era.

Shambhavi Choudhary of the LJP (Ram Vilas), who won from Samastipur, talks about transforming regional connectivity and infrastructure.

Shambhavi Choudhary of the LJP (Ram Vilas), who won from Samastipur, talks about transforming regional connectivity and infrastructure. | Photo Credit: PTI

“Azad’s machoistic image, militant language, and uncompromising attitude towards the Right forces has ignited a new energy among Dalit youths, making them his rapidly growing support base. The possibility for the revival of an independent Dalit movement depends on the capacity of such young leaders,” said Wankhede.

“Azad appears to be engaging with Dalit questions using innovative populist ideas and impressive political rhetoric. Although Azad has adopted the conventional tactics of the BSP to win elections, like his dependency on the Jatav-Muslim support base and the promotion of Bahujan ideology, he also stands distinct from his predecessors. His sudden arrival on the national scene as a key Dalit leader is astonishing, as many Dalit political leaders, while active and influential on the ground, have not received such extensive limelight and mass popularity.”

However, Azad’s popularity, he said, appeared to have been crafted by social media and the BSP still held significant influence over marginalised groups. Said Wankhede: “For a significant entry in UP’s politics and building an organic organisation of committed young leaders, intellectuals, and social activists is required, which is not the case with the Aazad Samaj Party yet. Further, he has to offer a new social justice manifesto in response to the cultural and economic crises that the neoliberal market economy has perpetuated over the socially marginalised groups. While Azad is popular and promising, he lacks the additional appendages to mark his presence in national politics discourse as a visionary leader.”

  • The rise in social mobility among Dalits and disenchantment with the status quo has led to a shift in Dalit politics. Opposition parties have been the beneficiaries of Mayawati’s marginalisation.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Dalit consciousness is robust, radical, and committed to social justice values. Dalit political parties have become pragmatic rather than harping on identity politics.
  • A few Dalit leaders who made their presence felt in this election across north India include Chandrashekhar Azad, Sanjana Jatav, Shambhavi Choudhary, Tanuj Punia, Manoj Kumar, and Arjun Ram Meghwal.

Emerging Dalit leaders

Like Azad, a few other Dalit leaders made their presence felt this time across north India. All of them are educated and committed to social justice. Sanjana Jatav’s victory from Bharatpur is significant as it is the home district of Chief Minister Bhajan Lal Sharma. Sanjana talks of the backwardness of Bharatpur, which the BJP won in the previous two elections, omparesd with other regions. She mentions her modest background and how her father used to drive a tractor. The focus of this 26-year-old law graduate is on creating jobs for women.

Shambhavi Choudhary, who won from Samastipur in Bihar as a nominee of the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), or LJP (Ram Vilas), is another young Dalit who means serious business. Shambhavi is the daughter of Ashok Kumar Choudhary, a senior Minister in the Nitish Kumar government. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, and a master’s from the Delhi School of Economics, Shambhavi talks of transforming regional connectivity and infrastructure.

Tanuj Punia, who defeated the BJP in Barabanki is the son of Congress leader P.L. Punia, once a close aide of Mayawati, and a BTech from IIT Roorkee. On his Instagram profile with 62,000 followers, he talks of how Mayawati has been sidelined in Dalit politics.

The Congress candidate Manoj Kumar, who defeated the BJP in Sasaram, has a degree in rural management. Arjun Ram Meghwal, a four-term Lok Sabha member of the BJP from Bikaner, is a law graduate with an MBA.

Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress campaigning in Jalandhar on May 10. He won by 1.76 lakh votes, which is the highest in the constituency’s history.

Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress campaigning in Jalandhar on May 10. He won by 1.76 lakh votes, which is the highest in the constituency’s history. | Photo Credit: ANI

The buzz in the BSP is that Mayawati, who removed her nephew Akash Anand from the campaign midway, could make him the face of the party again to ward off the challenge from Azad and other emerging Dalit leaders. Akash Anand is an MBA from the University of Plymouth in the UK.

Charanjit Singh Channi’s victory from Jalandhar in Punjab indicates the potential for the Congress’ Dalit consolidation plans. Channi, who holds LLB and MBA degrees, is suave and shuns controversies. Before the 2022 Assembly election in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi replaced veteran leader Amarinder Singh with Channi as Chief Minister. This was a first for the community in Punjab, where Dalits constitute 32 per cent of the population. Channi, who was Chief Minister for 111 days, won from Jalandhar by 1.76 lakh votes, which is the highest in the constituency’s electoral history.

The Congress’ Bhajan Lal Jatav, who defeated the BJP in Karaui Dholpur, hogged the headlines in 2021 for demanding an increase in the SC reservation quota from 16 to 18 per cent in accordance with the 2021 Census.

Different style

The cliché of identity politics is conspicuously absent in the conversation of these emerging Dalit leaders unlike under the three Rams—Kanshi Ram, Jagjivan Ram, and Ram Vilas Paswan. Under Mayawati, the trend shifted from “Bahujan” to “Sarvajan”, but the language of caste assertion remained the same.

The contrast in today’s Dalit politics is also exemplified by the difference in the approach and style of the two Dalit Union Ministers from Bihar in the Modi government—Chirag Paswan of the LJP (Ram Vilas) and Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular).

Also Read | Jitan Ram Manjhi: Breaking barriers

While Chirag seeks to cultivate a constituency beyond Dalit politics and enlarge on the development plank with the “Bihar first, Bihari first” pitch, Manjhi was caught in an older controversy for his remarks against Brahmins during his campaign, for which he later apologised.

In Haryana, the re-election of former Union Minister Kumari Selja will give heft to the Congress in Dalit segments ahead of the Assembly election later this year. But this can happen only if the party works out the elusive Dalit-Jat unity, which has now become a possibility following a compromise between Selja and Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Contrary to popular belief, Wankhede said, Dalit consciousness is robust, radical, and committed to social justice values, and the current political dynamics showcases the point that Dalit political parties can also be prudent and pragmatic. “Major Dalit parties (like the BSP and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi) chose not to join national political alliances while some others (mainly the LJP and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) shifted to different sides. The LJP joined the BJP-led NDA and showed that a Dalit political party can adopt an accessible, pragmatic route and divert the Dalit movement towards a new destination,” Wankhede said.

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