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An historical meeting that could perhaps have advanced social justice politics in north India by a good few decades could never happen. B.R. Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia, having initiated correspondence in 1955, did agree to meet but never could, owing to Ambedkar’s death on December 6, 1956. Considering the future of the political ideologies and movements that the both of them inspired, such a meeting and what could have followed, might just have changed the history of the country.
The current elections in Uttar Pradesh seem in some ways to be dialling the clock back to a pre-2014 situation when political Hindutva was struggling for dominance. The backward caste leaders joining the Samajwadi Party (SP), in addition to the already sealed up alliances with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), point to an Other Backward Classes consolidation behind the Lohiaite Samajwadi Party (SP).
Lohia, although by birth a member of the trader or baniya caste, was able to fire up the imaginations of leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and so many more socialist OBC leaders who came to see “caste” as the basic prism of interpretation for the Indian society. This was by itself not a novel formulation with Ambedkar’s own ideas regarding the political emancipation of Dalits and the issues of social justice in India, predating those of Lohia’s by a couple of decades. These two ideologies ought to be the most natural political allies.
The most famous, and successful, example of their coming together was the 1993 alliance between the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which succeeded in halting the BJP (then on a Babri demolition high) and formed the government. The alliance fell apart due to lack of coordination, ultimately ending in the infamous guest house attack on Mayawati. Misogyny trumped social justice that day. It was a blow from which the two have never seemed to recover, despite an alliance in 2019 which could not stop the Hindutva juggernaut.
Now, in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, which are crucial in their significance for national politics, an OBC consolidation seems to be happening but without the Dalits. The SP has Dalit leaders and some Dalit support. Dalits, however, still seem to be looking towards the BSP and to a lesser extent, the Bhim Army, for representation. It must also be said that the BJP is wooing OBCs and Dalits with some success in the name of Hindutva.
In 2019, the combined opposition tally across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand was six out of a total 119 seats. That year, the SP-BSP-RLD Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh won 15 seats out of a total 80. The BJP won 64 seats with the Congress winning its sole seat in Rae Bareli. That was the peak of the ‘Modi wave’, and in that context, compared to the relative performance of the opposition in other Hindi belt states, the performance of the Mahagathbandan in winning 15 seats was stellar. The Bahujan OBC and Dalit alliance, despite a clear defeat, did register its relevance. The Ambedkarite and Lohiaite alliance, which can broadly be called the ‘Bahujan’ alliance, can be a game-changer.
Chandrashekhar Azad has recently stated that he does not want to ally with the SP. While the details of why alliance talks did not work out are not known, the issue seems to be have been one of ‘respect’, which in Uttar Pradesh is often a reference to the number of seats offered to a party in an alliance. Whether the alliance talks broke down because the SP, a much larger party than the Azad Samaj Party, did not consider the new party worthy of the number seats it was expecting or not, this is an undesirable development from the point of view of the opposition.
Bahujan unity amongst the OBCs, Dalits and minorities is the surest way to counter the BJP’s communal politics. The impediment against their coming together is a sense of mutual distrust. The ground-level interactions between the OBCs and Dalits form the basis for this mistrust, with the Dalits seeing the OBCs as the enforcers of the caste system. It is a fact that many instances of violence against Dalits are carried out by OBCs. While OBC Lohiaite leaders may claim to represent the Dalits also, this lack of trust forces the Dalits to pursue their own political formations.
If the ‘Bahujan’ alliance could have been cemented in North India in the 1950s, the political landscape would have been completely different. A ‘Bahujan’ consciousness on the ground could have been built. The coming elections may yet show the need for a deeper consciousness that can lead to lasting social and political alliances. For that, the leaders will have to ensure that their cadres understand what they stand for. Ambedkar and Lohia offered very similar solutions. Both were ahead of their times in their understanding of progressive politics as well, especially when it comes to the role and rights of women in society. A belated coming together could yet be a pivotal event for India.
Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer and a member of the All India Trinamool Congress.