For that brief moment during the joint rally of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, on April 25, the nation glimpsed the possibility of political alliances influencing social transformation.
The moment had the spontaneity of the unexpected – BSP leader Mayawati placed her hand on the head of Dimple Yadav, the mahagathbandhan candidate in Kannauj, to bless her. Dimple, who is the wife of SP leader Akhilesh Yadav, promptly bent down and touched Mayawati’s feet.
In her subsequent speech in Kannauj, Mayawati said she treated Dimple as her daughter-in-law. She explained, “It is all because Akhilesh Yadav gives me so much respect, just like the elder in the family. I, too, have a very special bonding with his wife…”
The two women’s reciprocal gestures symbolise the flattening of caste hierarchy and the sweeping aside of traditional norms determining social relations. For once, age and seniority were understood to be the principles that determine hierarchy.
It might be said that the young always touch elders’ feet. Mayawati is 17 years older than Akhilesh and 16 years older than Dimple. Yet Dimple touching Mayawati’s feet is iconoclastic. This is because caste, not age, is the determinant of India’s social hierarchy. Akhilesh belongs to the Yadav caste, an OBC group which is, in the traditional caste system, ranked far higher than the Dalits.
According to the traditional system, a Dalit, whether old or young, is expected to demonstrate deference and subservience to those supposedly ‘higher’ in status. Dimple is a Rajput, yet, in accordance with the Indian tradition, her marriage to Akhilesh has her inherit his caste. In accepting Mayawati’s seniority, the Yadav couple refuted the hierarchy of status based on caste.
The Kannauj episode reflects the realisation among subaltern parties that they must resolve the differences among their social bases before they can hope to counter ‘upper’-caste hegemony. The SP enjoys the overwhelming backing of the Yadavs, who hire labour, largely comprising Dalits, to work on their fields. To keep their cost of production low, the land-owning Yadavs are accused of suppressing Dalits demanding higher wages.
The Yadav-Dalit conflict at the grassroots level was the principal reason why the earlier SP-BSP alliance collapsed just two years after coming to power in Uttar Pradesh in 1993. With Mulayam Singh Yadav as chief minister, the Yadavs felt emboldened to launch a string of attacks against the Dalits.
Under pressure from Dalits angry with the treatment meted out to them, the BSP decided to pull support from the Mulayam government. But the decision was leaked to Mulayam’s supporters, who, on June 2, 1995, attacked the State Guest House in Lucknow where Mayawati and her MLAs were meeting. For the next 24 years, the SP and the BSP became implacable political foes.
In touching Mayawati’s feet and seeking her blessings, Dimple conveyed the Yadav family’s remorse and apology for the 1995 attack. It was also a message to the Yadavs that they must resolve their differences with the Dalits on the ground, just as the dynasty of Mulayam has chosen to let bygones be bygones. Or else they are doomed to remain out of power.
By adopting Dimple as her daughter-in-law, Mayawati has sought to dispel the apprehension among her supporters that the Yadavs will find it unbecoming to vote for a Dalit leader’s party. Kannauj, thus, saw the symbolical merger of the family of Akhilesh and Dimple with that of Mayawati, who is now cast in the matriarch’s role. It makes all of them equal in social status, which arises from their subalternity.
Mayawati’s acceptance of Dimple as her daughter-in-law is a symbolical enactment of inter-caste kinship, which Dr B.R. Ambedkar prescribed in The Annihilation of Caste as the best method for demolishing caste. “It is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of caste and consciousness of caste. I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-[caste] marriage,” Ambedkar wrote.
Ambedkar thought inter-caste marriage could lead to fusion of blood and, therefore, foster a feeling of kinship powerful enough to trump the separatism that caste promotes. “Where society is already well knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity,” he wrote. This is precisely what the symbolic ‘marriage’ in Kannauj sought to achieve.
It is apt to recall the example of Bihar, where the animosity between the Yadavs and Muslims dated to the late 19th century. Their relationship became relatively amiable because of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav forging the M-Y, or Muslim-Yadav, political alliance. Bihar’s experience shows why the April 25 rally in Kannauj could mark a turning point in Uttar Pradesh’s politics.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist.