The Dalit is the New Muslim

With the electorate no longer allowing itself to be beguiled with the promise of 'achhe din,' the BJP has now taken to spreading fear about the return of “caste politics.”

Dalit groups protesting at Thane railway station. Credit: PTI

Dalit groups protesting at Thane railway station. Credit: PTI

It was left to a senior serving IAS officer – no less than the chief secretary of Gujarat – to blurt out loudly what everybody – from the establishment to its allies in the media – has avoided acknowledging publicly: the voters in Gujarat gave the ruling BJP a haircut because the farmers felt “distressed” and the youth had no jobs. Admittedly, the BJP establishment – and, more importantly, its mentors and monitors in Nagpur – can boast of some very sharp minds. They immediately went back to the drawing board. And, there was Maharashtra.

Everybody, except the paid consultants to the NITI Aayog, knows reasonably well that the much-touted ‘Gujarat model‘ of development will not create jobs in the country, certainly not on a scale that can even remotely dent the level of unemployment in rural India and underemployment in the urban areas; definitely not before the 2019 Lok Sabha battle. Whatever may be attempted by the NDA government over the next 16 months, India will remain a poor, vastly unequal society, and the majority of the poor will remain stranded in rural India and its undiminished deprivations and its unabated bitterness.

The lines of economic deprivation, if anything, are now more sharply defined than before; the electorate will no longer allow itself to be beguiled with the promise of ‘achhe din.’ But neither can the rural voters be allowed to nurse their grievances. Some distraction would need to be introduced into the play. Hence, this sudden eruption over the Koregaon Bhima battle. The violence itself was rather limited; it is the narrative that has been imposed on the violence that is chillingly revealing.

Also read: Bhima Koregaon and the Dalits’ Never-Ending Search for a Nation

Politics’ primary task is to produce order, trust and harmony in society. An ideal political society offers, or at least promises, partnership, respect and accommodation to all sections of society. Democracy recommends itself precisely because it undertakes to effect the widest possible partnership. It is this possibility that creates trust in the democratic arrangement. And a legitimacy accrues to it because of its potential to produce a politics of trust, which in turn, seeks to create a just and fair society.

This democratic ideal creates its own contradiction. Electoral mobilisation becomes legitimate occasion not just for a clash of ideas and ideologies, but also for an invocation of primordial links, bonds, loyalties, sympathies. Each electoral round produces its own slate of haughty winners and sore losers.

For the first 60 years, our republic has had a kind of Nehruvian order. The key to this Nehruvian order was a politics of trust – the leaders, the political parties and the electorate subscribed to a wholesome respect for pluralism, diversity and differences. Though we have had a constitution and its various institutions have helped instill bonds of citizenship, it was the politicians and political parties who undertook the politics’ primary task of manufacturing trust and harmony in society. Wise politicians like a Kamaraj a Y.B. Chavan or a Devraj Urs developed a grammar of accommodation. We produced a Karpoori Thakur, a Lalu Prasad and a Mayawati. Social satisfaction was partial but there was no dissatisfaction on a subversive scale because political space was not denied to anyone.

Then, in the early 1990s, we switched over to a new economy of market, which demanded a new politics. We got to work right away; we staged “December 6, 1992”. Within a few years, we had a new pan-India middle class and, suddenly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee became an “acceptable” face. Since then, we have had an unfinished political civil war on our hands. That war did reach some kind of resolution in May 2014. We proclaimed a dawn, a “new India” and minted a “new normal”.

A contradiction gnaws at the heart of this “new normal.” The BJP’s electoral managers can take legitimate pride in “reading” every sub-sub-caste and then devising an electoral strategy to keep them all under its tent. In the process, electoral mobilisation keeps alive all the old fault-lines in society; but the BJP’s ideological managers demand a new conformity, without having worked out new skills of accommodation. Hindutva insists on a submergence of identity, caste, community; it seeks brassily to prioritise national, pan-Indian sentiments – deshbhakti, anti-Pakistanism, the Indian army, Kulbhushan Jadhav – over individual or sub-group or local satisfactions and grievances.

Also read: This Will Be the Year of Peak Hindutva

These last few years, we have made street violence and anger a respectable source of assertion as long as the perpetrators invoke this or that national/Hindu sensibility. This new cult of authorised violence and intimidation has seeped into our daily lives. The local pages of the vernacular press are full of violence, inflicted by ordinary people on fellow-ordinary citizens. Social media, in any case, is full of venom and badmouthing. We are made to feel good when we act petty and small. We are quietly informed that this time there was no carol-singing at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The wife of the chief minister of Maharashtra finds herself trolled viciously because she dared to seek donations for an Christmas charity.

And now, we have had Gujarat 2017. The Congress appears to have discovered a way to work with the Dalits, the OBCs and other socially angry groups, challenging the grand narrative of the “new India”. Within days of the “great” victory for “vikas” and “Gujarati asmita”, the senior-most Patel minister refuses to join office because his community’s self-respect has not been sufficiently assuaged. Then, the Koli ministers are reported to be restive.

The BJP has a dilemma on its hands. Electoral politics and tactics can be finessed to edge out the Muslims and the Dalits, but their absence from the political space does not mean an end to their aspirations, dreams or anger and a sense of discrimination. There may be a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, but it has neither become a poverty-free Bharat nor a corruption-free India.

Gujarat has worryingly revealed the fault-lines. Between now and May 2019, a sufficiently sizeable number of Indians would need to be kept in fear – an apprehension of the return of “caste politics”. Look what the Jignesh Mevanis and the Umar Khalids have wrought on Mumbai! And look who is giving them protection and patronage! The ownership of the ‘disrupters’ has already been attributed to Rahul Gandhi. Nightly anchors have already drawn their eschatological swords against those who disturb “peace.”

The “new India’s” new politics is producing distrust, not healing; divisions, not harmony; but never mind, there is a general election to be won. And, if the Dalits insist on believing in a history of their own, they will be made to feel the whiplash. Not just your present, but your past also belongs to us.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.

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