Debate: Robbing Representation of Social Content Helps BJP Mobilise Dalit-Bahujans

The BJP's "Machiavellian" strategies will continue to work as long as Dalit-Bahujan politics ignores the need for an economic programme.

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Harish Wankhede’s analytical piece, ‘Dismantling BJP’s Image as Party of Subaltern Castes in Uttar Pradesh‘ makes an important intervention in bringing to light many factors in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that were hitherto ignored. He acknowledges the shift in Dalit voting patterns that were for long denied by many Dalit-Bahujan scholars. He also acknowledges the wedge between Dalits and the OBCs and how they have been systematically used by the BJP. He correctly points towards the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the BJP but stops short of analysing why such tactics work on the ground.

He merely attributes all of this to the Machiavellian tactics of the BJP, ignoring the social roots that make such strategies viable. He also does not point out what could be done to offset the BJP’s strategies; surely if they are working for the BJP, there is no reason why they would stop using them, and merely lamenting about it would do next to nothing in making such strategies unviable.

Though it is tempting to believe the problem lies in the BJP ‘externally’, a more substantive analysis will require us to understand the sociology of caste dynamics and politics of “social justice” that both Dalit-Bahujan parties and scholars have been employing.

Also read: From Protesting the CAA to Embracing the Dalit-Bahujan Position on Citizenship

The Dalit-Bahujan discourse

The problem with prevailing discourse on ‘social justice’ is that it has systematically ignored the social content of representation and divested it of a political philosophy. Representation has become a hold-all strategy that has only further contributed to the rise of Hindutva politics. Demands such as of making Dalits priests at the Ram temple in Ayodhya fall within this framework. Even if one reads this as a tactical move to expose the caste bias of the BJP, it reeks of insensitivity to the sentiments of the Muslims. What is the point then of lamenting that Dalit-Muslim unity is being disallowed by the BJP?

Ignoring such self-cancelling demands leads us to Mayawati, who otherwise maintained a stoic silence on the Ayodhya issue for reasons best known to her. She recently was seen taking the lead in promising that the BSP will build the Ram Mandir with greater purpose and commitment. This shift in the BSP’s strategy is not unique to the party; we have also seen how youth leaders of the Congress too were active in collecting funds for the temple. But it tells us that prevailing social justice politics have next to nothing to offer in terms of how to counter the consolidating majoritarian sentiments but are content to strive for more representation – whatever might be its social content.

BSP chief Mayawati. Photo: PTI

It is this vacuity that has allowed further consolidation of a majoritarian Hindutva vision of Hinduism that has percolated to the Dalit-Bahujans, which is in steep contrast to the way it plays out in a state like Tamil Nadu or Kerala. In north India, this has allowed the BJP to mobilise Dalits as Hindus for the purpose of recognition, and as Dalits for the purpose of representation.

The story is no different for the OBCs who shifted gears to abandon the explicit politics of social justice because the BJP promises not only more representation for the non-Yadavs and lower-end OBCs but also projects itself to meet the new aspirational imagination with greater development. The question that we should be asking is what has prevented the “social justice” parties from extending representation to lower-end OBCs? Why did they not take up the agenda of social prejudices between various sub-castes of Dalits and between the OBCs and the Dalits? Why are they failing to question the meaning and content of development that is essentially neoliberal?

Dalit-Bahujan politics was perhaps at its weakest in resisting neoliberal reforms and reduced it to demanding reservations in the private sector and spewing hatred against those Dalit-Bahujan scholars like Anand Teltumbde, who continuously highlighted the need to resist corporatisation as it will dispossess and displace mostly the Dalits and the most disadvantaged among OBCs.

The recent fiasco of migrants and their displacement back to their villages does not count either as part of social justice like the issue of OBC identity, even though it is clear that most of them were Dalits. It is simply baffling to find why informalisation of the economy does not become an issue of social justice. Further, those pointing to the significance of such issues are often seen as part of “Brahminical subversion”, plotting the dilution of a Bahujan cause by raising more universal demands that include others too.

Also read: The Irony of BSP and SP Going from Being Anti-Brahmin to Now Wooing Them

Dalit-Bahujan politics have been offering a knee-jerk reaction, missing the woods for the trees. It is now an acceptable discourse to equate the Right and the Left and to argue that for Dalit-Bahujans these differences make no difference. While it is important to point towards subtle prejudices within the secular-progressive politics and parties, including the Left, what sense does it make to ignore the needful issues those parties might have raised?

It is important to mount a critique of the Left parties on the axis of inadequate representation, but that does not mean opposing everything the Left stood for and ignoring the contributions they made especially by opposing privatisation or carrying out land reforms. In fact, often, merely pointing to such contributions is itself construed as patronage and a devious attempt to “appropriate” the Dalit-Bahujan constituency. Apart from everything, it ignores Ambedkar’s own engagement with state socialism, the Hindu Code Bill, secularism and many other such issues in his writings. Here again, the debate gets reduced to “appropriating” the image of Ambedkar, and that largely has helped the BJP-RSS combine to actually “appropriate” Ambedkar, forgetting what he stood for.

One has to note that the BJP and its “Machiavellian” strategies will continue to work as long as demands for representation are not filled with a robust social content and an economic programme. Further, we need to begin to work on social prejudices between the subaltern castes, the way the farmer’s movement recently offered its own critique of how they got waylaid by communal mobilisation.

For all of this to happen, we have to collectively learn the art of working together even when we mutually disagree, just the way Ambedkar was a bitter critic of Gandhi-Nehru but was active in the constitution making process.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.