Tamil Nadu: Does a Leadership Position in the BJP Really Help the Dalits?

For the BJP, the appointment of Dalits is a strategy it pursues in states where it is not strong in order to get huge political gains in return. This is what it hopes L. Murugan will do for the saffron cause.

Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party announced that L. Murugan – a Dalit leader, until recently the vice chairperson of National Commission for Scheduled Castes – would be the BJP’s Tamil Nadu president, the party’s ‘contract workers’ on social media asked in unison, “Will the DMK, that makes tall claims on social justice, do this?”

Propaganda aside, even Dalits who are indisposed to the DMK see Murugan’s appointment as a positive outcome. But to really understand the BJP’s motive and agenda, one needs to retrospectively connect the dots.

Murugan is the second Dalit president of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit. In 2000, Dr Kirubanidhi – who had worked in the BJP for two decades – was appointed party president. Three years later, he went public on how the party was discriminating against him on the basis of his caste.

Those were the times when it was almost impossible for anyone to speak about caste discrimination in any party. As can be imagined, Kirubanidhi’s statements caused a sensation. Since he had also raised questions about financial irregularities in the party, L. Ganesan – who was then the BJP’s state president – not just humiliated and threatened Kirubanidhi, but also allegedly assaulted him.

In an interview, Kirubanidhi had explained in detail how he was discriminated and how ‘they couldn’t digest a Dalit in the leadership post.’ In 2011, when Pon Radhakrishnan was the party chief, Kirubanidhi left the BJP and joined the DMK. He died three years ago. Had he been alive, he would have perhaps explained the reality behind the BJP’s façade of social justice.

The BJP’s Dalit strategy

As in any other field in independent India, a Dalit leadership remains an impossible task to achieve in politics. It is almost as if Dalits have to start their own political parties to be leaders  (the one national exception today being D. Raja of the Communist Party of India). It still remains a huge challenge for a Dalit to be in an important position in a party meant for all castes. The existence of Dalit leaders in secular, democratic parties can only be seen as acts of tokenism and cannot be construed as Dalit representation. A position to one person can never be an act of representation. But the BJP is different. Its appointment of Dalits to leadership positions is not just an act of tokenism. Rather, if the BJP appoints a Dalit to a leadership position, this only means it expects huge political gains in return.

That is why the BJP tends not to appoint Dalits as leaders in states where it has considerable influence. When the BJP launched its Andhra Pradesh state unit in 1980, it needed something  to establish itself there. The Telugu Desam and Congress were strong; both parties were dominated by Caste Hindus, so the BJP’s strategy was to target Dalit votes. Bangaru Laxman, an RSS ideologue, was appointed the state president thanks to his protests against the Congress. He had been in jail for 16 months under MISA during the emergency. A labour leader in several organisations, the BJP thought he would be the right candidate to consolidate Dalit votes.

In 2000, Bangaru Laxman was made BJP’s national president. But within a a year, he was caught in Tehelka’s sting operation on charges of corruption, and had to quit his post. What is still unclear is how the BJP could so easily jettison Bangaru Laxman alone while continuing to fiercely protect every other leader facing criminal charges including corruption. Despite facing charges of murder (eg. Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin-Kausarbi case) or credible allegations of corruption not to speak of hate speech or incitement of violence, leaders at the Central and state level have continued to enjoy unstinted growth in the party. Opposition leaders facing corruption charges have the cases against them shelved if they defect to the BJP. In short, no Caste Hindu leader has suffered the way Bangaru Laxman did for a bribe of one lakh rupees. He was made to resign immediately.

Two standards for Dalits, Caste Hindus

When the trial took place in a CBI court, no BJP leader came to speak up for Bangaru Laxman, except Ramnath Kovind – today the President of India. It was widely believed that the party gave up on Laxman because of ‘factionalism and casteism’. To ‘compensate’ Laxman, the BJP offered a seat to his wife in 2004. Severely isolated, Bangaru Laxman was sent to jail. He came out on bail, was ill for a long time and died, before completing his sentence.

Of course, the BJP is not unique in its approach. This is the establishment’s way. It is difficult to find a Caste Hindu politician, however heinous his crime, who has suffered a similar fate. A glance at the list of MPs, MLAs, ministers and party leaders involved in corruption and criminal charges will reveal that most of them persecuted in such cases were either from Backward or Scheduled Castes. Sukh Ram, a Brahmin from Congress, did not go to jail even for a day though bundles of cash were confiscated from his bedroom. But A. Raja who was a minister in the same department and whose name was involved in a corruption case spent 15 months in jail.

The former Tamil Nadu chief minster, J. Jayalalithaa – again a Brahmin – spent only 21 days in jail after the charges against her in the amassment of wealth case was proved. She was subsequently released even though the crime was proven. Sasikala, a non-Brahmin and accused number 2 in the same case, continues to be in jail for more than three years.

The media too amplifies a charge of corruption only on the lines of caste. The 2G scam involving A. Raja and Kanimozhi, and the fodder scam involving Lalu Prasad Yadav were a matter of celebration in the newsrooms. But a corruption charge involving a Brahmin is never celebrated so. Bangaru Laxman’s fate was part of this wider process.

Forget Tamil Nadu, where BJP stands no great chance. Let’s ask how many Dalit leaders have been appointed in presidential roles in the 14 States ruled by the BJP? Not one. To which castes do the presidents of the BJP in the other 27 States belong? How many Dalits have been made ministers in BJP ruled States? In how many general constituencies did the BJP field Dalit candidates in the last elections? Of the 58 ministers who were sworn in by Narendra Modi in May 2019,  only three were Dalits belonging to BJP. If the ruling party was really concerned about social justice, it should have assigned representation proportionate to population in the cabinet.

Casteism and the Dravidian parties

Coming back to Murugan’s appointment, it is astonishing that a politically motivated exception is taken as an example of social justice, with no mention of these issues, without drawing the necessary parallels. Murugan was never given a chance to contest the elections when the BJP was in the DMK or the AIADMK-led alliance. He was offered a chance to contest either in the assembly elections or in by-polls only when the BJP contested alone – when the chances of winning were abysmally low. Of course, the BJP can still claim that it made Ramnath Kovind the president of India. The BJP can make a rightful claim only when Kovind achieves at least one percent of what K.R Narayanan achieved as president by his independent, and responsible performance.

Both the DMK and AIADMK   – the major parties in Tamil Nadu – are dominated by leaders from Backward classes. Dalit parties make their way into parliament and the state assembly only by aligning with either of the Dravidian majors. No significant party positions have been assigned to Dalits. Enlightened Dalits are critical of the Dravidian parties. The recent speech of DMK organisational leader and MP R.S. Bharathi ‘that the judicial positions of Dalits were alms from the Dravidian movement’ and the act of AIADMK Minister Dindugul Srinivasan in asking a tribal boy to remove his slippers evidently created huge anger amid the oppressed communities. Dalits took to social media to strongly criticise the Dravidian parties, especially the DMK which often quotes Periyar and social justice. There could be no second opinion that the criticisms are valid in times like this. Yet the BJP and the DMK cannot be placed on the same scales.

Does the DMK have a casteism problem? Yes. That alone could be the honest answer, drawn from examples not just in contemporary times but from the past too. It is now faced with a crisis of annihilating caste within its own organisation, given the fact that only the ideology of social justice can help the party survive.  After the recent death of DMK’s general secretary, Professor Anbalagan, there has been wide speculation on who would be the next general secretary in the party. Along with Durai Murugan and E V. Velu, supporters of A. Raja have proposed his name in this ‘contest.’ Sources say that Durai Murugan could be the general secretary while Velu the party treasurer. It is a bitter truth that only a few Dalits like Sathyavani Muthu, Anthiyur Selvaraj, V.P. Duraisamy, Parithi Ilam Vazhuthi, A Raja, Thamizharasi and Mathivannan have been given positions in the 70-year old history of the DMK. Those leaders too have almost often been allotted departments like social welfare, Adi Dravida welfare or animal welfare.

Murugan’s qualifications

But the BJP’s act of claiming that it stands taller than the DMK when it comes to social justice by merely making L Murugan – an Arundhathiyar by birth – its president is nothing but a crudely dishonest claim. Murugan as the president in BJP is not the same as A Raja in the DMK. True, Raja will definitely face a crisis in his own party. But unlike the BJP which washed its hands off Bangaru Laxman, Karunanidhi supported Raja when he was charged in the 2G case.  Raja was eventually acquitted and continues to be an MP in the Lok Sabha.

Whatever be the issues, Dalits have only had a friendly rivalry with the DMK. With the BJP, the relationship is not friendly. The former is tolerable, and can be set right. The latter can never be set right. The BJP nurtures a long-term dream that by sharpening the divides along caste lines it could gain some traction in Tamil Nadu where division along communal lines have never been successful. Its secretive ‘operation Dravida Nadu’ is evidently a strategy to explore whether caste will help consolidate its base in southern States where regional parties are strong.

To the BJP, the appointment of Murugan is a political strategy.  He might have been the vice president of the National SC/ST commission yet Murugan, nurtured by the RSS ideology, has never expressed Dalit solidarity. How could he have done any justice to his position at the National SC/ST commission when he was still with the BJP? He might have been educated in Ambedkar Government Law College and practiced as lawyer, yet he has never quoted Ambedkar anywhere. Murugan has also been part of Dharma Rakshana Samiti – an outfit of the RSS working against conversions. He has also been part of the ABVP. Instead of condemning caste motivated murders and atrocities against Dalits, he had given interviews in support of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and expressed concerns over increasing incidents of ‘love Jihad.’ He has been consistent in his anti-Muslim stand.

Without these ‘qualifications’, Murugan wouldn’t have become the party president. Aren’t other leaders who vied for this position including H. Raja, Vanathi Srinivasan, Nainar Nagendaran and K.T. Raghavan equally qualified? Perhaps more, going by the usual Hindutva metrics, yet at this moment the BJP believes that a Dalit leadership would help escalate anti DMK feeling in Tamil Nadu and help consolidate the Dalit vote bank while diluting the Dravidian ideology. It is perhaps true that the BJP’s growth in Tamil Nadu lies in the fall of Dravidian politics. With the AIADMK already on its side, the DMK continues to be its singular enemy. If not in few years, in the next few decades the BJP hopes to achieve this.

This is the strategy employed by the BJP in any state where it has little influence. Wherever the Dalits are, in national and regional parties, they remain voiceless and faceless. The BJP believes that instead of creating a new cadre base, it could create a new vote bank by merely attracting the dissatisfied leaders on its side. Ramvilas Paswan and Ramdas Athwale are classic examples.

Using Dalit leaders to block Dalit politics

Both at the national and regional level, the BJP’s agenda is to bring Dalit leaders aiming only at political power into its alliance and to bring together caste organisations aspiring for political authority into one fold.  The hidden agenda is to distort the Dalit identity by dividing them on basis of caste and by preventing the oppressed communities from consolidating themselves under the Dalit identity.

In Tamil Nadu, the Dalits are divided as subsects – Pallars, Paraiyars and Arundhathiyars. For over twenty-five years, Dalit movements in Tamil Nadu have strived hard to bring them together under one identity. The entry of BJP has sharpened divisions on the basis of sub castes. Pallar leaders like Krishnasamy and John Pandiyan are now part of the BJP. Thirumavalavan – the most prominent leader from the Paraiyar subsect – is so ideologically grounded that the BJP had to look elsewhere, and has been trying to attract lesser known leaders from the community. By making Murugan from the Arundhathiyar community its president, it hopes to create some ripples among the Arundhathiyars too.

In a way, it is thanks to the BJP’s maneuvres that the chances of Dalit solidarity never fructified over the past four years.

Amit Shah took part in the Devendra Kula Vellalar (Pallars) Conference in southern Tamil Nadu. In Northern Tamil Nadu, the BJP held its SC wing conference. When the PMK was yet to become part of the BJP’s alliance, the latter brought together several leaders who quit the PMK along with the Vanniyar (most backward caste) movements that had little political recognition.  The BJP continues to bring people together on the basis of caste lines, hoping its strategy will help gain ground.

The BJP’s strategy is to keep the caste movements politically happy, and forcefully enact projects against Dalit and most backward communities. The NEET exams, ban on beef, the 10 percent economic reservation for Caste Hindus, the atrocities against Dalits across the country, the violence against women, lynching are merely various forms of the BJP’s anti Dalit, Islamophobic ideology.  To make Dalits support the atrocities against their own community, the BJP creates such alliances and positions. However barbaric an act of violence committed by Caste Hindus against Dalits may be, a Murugan or a Krishnasamy either has to support it or remain silent. They will have to approve the atrocities against Dalits as the policies of their party even if it means doing away with reservation or stopping the educational aid. Of what use is this position or the political power?

Caste division and communal hatred are part of the BJP’s policies. Its idea of politics in accordance with the soil of the land is only to bury the anti-caste ideas and secular fabric of the soil. This is what Brahminism is all about. If Dalits could come in handy to achieve this aim, the BJP wouldn’t hesitate to offer them positions. The non-brahmins should realise it’s not just a temporary phenomenon but also a dangerous one.

Jeya Rani is a Chennai-based journalist.

(Translated from Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan)