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End of the Dalit Chimera

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

The decisive electoral defeat of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections certainly ends the chimera created by Kanshi Ram and later, Mayawati that Dalits can be the ruling class in India. The astute electoral games of the BSP worked for it in the short-run, but the logic of caste-arithmetic underlying the Bahujan category and Mayawati’s misdemeanours have cost the party dearly.

The rout of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) may not spell the end of Mayawati as a politician, but certainly ends the chimera created by Kanshi Ram that Dalits can be the ruling class in India. B R Ambedkar, despite his multifarious accomplishments and exhortation to Dalits to become a ruling people (rajyakarti jamat), could not win a single election in post-independence India himself. Dalit leaders such as Damodaram Sanjivayya became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (1960–62), but as a Congressman. It was only Kanshi Ram who, with his dogged determination, carved out an independent movement and led it to political victory in the largest state of India. Mayawati, his prodigy, and daughter of a humble government employee, went on to become chief minister of UP four times and was considered a Prime Minister hopeful by pollsters until recently.

Indeed, the BSP had created a veritable chimera for Dalits, reinforcing their confidence in the present political system. Fed on the pride of caste identity, Dalits would not discern the difference between Dalit rule and rule by a Dalit. While the Dalits in UP celebrated Mayawati’s rule as their own and supported her year after year, Dalits outside UP considered it the model to emulate. Even leaders like K G Satyamurthy, who co-founded the dreaded, extreme left Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (People’s War) along with K Seetharamaiah and the late Bojja Tharakam, had come under its spell before they realised its limitation and got out. But for the multitude of the Dalit masses, it became a persistent promise of emancipation. Alas, this chimera appears to be wearing off, as recent data reveals.

Making of the Chimera

After the debacle of the Republican Party of India (RPI) in the mid-1960s, Kanshi Ram, then an employee in the defence establishment in Pune, conceived a new constituency of people of his ilk and organised them into a club-like formation called Backward (including Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes) and Minority Communities’ Employees Federation, abbreviated as BAMCEF. He inspired this unlikely class of Dalits to contribute to building social and financial capital for Dalits in a bid to pay back society. After building a critical mass with organisation and finance, he started an agitprop wing Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) in 1981. BAMCEF members were proscribed by service rules to participate in political activities but could encourage others to take it up. Graduating to electoral politics was a natural step thereafter, which Kanshi Ram initiated by fielding candidates in the local elections of Delhi and Haryana envisioned as “Limited Political Action.” Later, in 1986, he dissolved the DS4 and formed BSP.

Kanshi Ram’s choice of UP as the site to launch his political experiment was a strategic feat. UP has a unique demography of Dalits, comprising 21.1% of the state’s population. This is the third-largest proportion of Dalits in an Indian state, and the largest population, in numerical terms, accounting for 20.5% of the national Dalit population followed by West Bengal with 10.7%, Bihar with 8.2%, and Tamil Nadu with 7.2%. It has, moreover, a single Dalit caste, Jatav, accounting for 57% of the total Dalit population, unrivalled by any other state. The next caste, Pasi, comprising 16% of Dalit population has no traditional rivalry unlike in other states. The addition of the next three castes, Dhobi, Kori and Balmiki, sums up to a single block of 87.5% of the total Dalit population, or 18.9% of the state’s total population. UP has had a significant history of Dalit movements with leaders like Acchutanand. When Ambedkar shifted his base in 1942 to Delhi, neighbouring UP came under his influence. After his death, the Ambedkarite movement, nurtured by leaders such as Buddha Priya Maurya and Sangh Priya Gautam, outperformed Maharashtra in terms of electoral gains. It suffered a setback for a decade or so after these leaders left the RPI. Another and, perhaps, more significant factor behind BSP’s success was the timing of its foray, when the national mainstream parties were on a weaker footing. Their weakness made these castes available for Kanshi Ram’s overtures to effect the social construction of the Bahujan category.

Caste-based Bahujan

Kanshi Ram’s “bahujan” assimilated all castes and communities, except for the upper castes, glossing over their different histories, cultures and more importantly, their material contradictions. They were supposed to snatch political power from the 15%-strong upper castes. Quintessentially, it was not different from the Congress’s tacit arithmetic that enabled its hegemonic sway until early 1970s in electoral politics. This caste combination began disintegrating under the pressure of the economic crisis unfolding in the late 1960s and the emergence of regional parties across the country. While there was nothing new in the conception of such a vote block, what was certainly new was the organisational strategy pivoted on the employed (or salaried) people of these communities. Kanshi Ram clearly avoided the lure of class orientation that afflicted the Dalit Panthers, which was born around the same time as BAMCEF. Both were responding to the degeneration that had set in to Dalit politics represented by the dilapidation of the RPI. He created avenues for government and public sector employees, who were suffering from a sense of guilt, to contribute to society. The general ignorance of the class outlook of the Ambedkarite movement prevented him from appreciating the class contradiction. This is a persistent folly of Dalits who fail to learn their lesson from the failure of Jotiba Phules’ Shudra–Atishudra category, or even Ambedkar’s Dalit category. The main flaw of these categories is their basis in fragile castes, which knew only fragmentation.

As a matter of fact, Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan also could not transcend this caste confine. The best of his efforts, as also Mayawati’s, remained rooted in the core caste constituency of Jatav–Chamars supplemented by other castes based on electoral logic. There was no question of the category of Bahujan materialising as such. But Dalits refuse to understand this reality and go after the chimera that massages their caste egos. They would never notice the contradiction between Ambedkar’s annihilation of caste and such caste-based overtures of Dalit leaders. When Kanshi Ram switched to electoral politics, many of the BAMCEF activists felt betrayed. Some of them ran BAMCEF factions and some began a movement called Moolnivasi (original inhabitant), which directly reflected a racist claim by othering the upper castes. Such is the power of identity intoxication that none saw it as anti-Ambedkar.

Maya’s Misdemeanours

All this, notwithstanding when Mayawati became chief minister, with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was a fragile arrangement with a narrow window of opportunity. She could have used this opportunity to demonstrate how a party of Bahujans would really be different from the so called Manuvadi parties. She could have initiated measures such as land distribution to the poor; revamp healthcare and schooling systems; make state administration accessible to the poor; and institute mechanisms to promote amity among village communities. These initiatives would have convinced people about BSP being different from other parties. But instead of trying it out, she and her mentor Kanshi Ram went on politicking and showing up more of the same evils that afflicted politics. The unprincipled alliance with the BJP to share power could have been justified with such pro-people policies. But it was all squandered at the altar of power, beating the Brahminical parties at their own cunning. It pandered to the Dalits’ identitarian pride that increasingly helped it consolidate its core constituency. Mayawati would repeat this power ride with the help of the BJP and the Samajwadi Party before dazzling her detractors by winning 206 seats in the 2007 elections, which would also be wasted.

As she got entrenched in politics, she became more feudal, arrogant, and narcissistic. It enthused her core constituency and she pandered to it by building mega memorials to Bahujan icons, holding mega rallies on her birthdays, and exhibiting her pelf and power, obviously to the discomfort of many others. It set off a vicious cycle of Dalits being rendered vulnerable and her taking them for granted to further her political expedition. She not only did all that other politicians did but far outdid them in the game. She now cries hoarse at the BJP for its communalism, but it was she and her political guru Kanshi Ram who had certified BJP to be a non-communal party when they accepted its support to become the chief minister. When the entire world condemned Modi’s role in Gujarat carnage of 2002, she had gone and campaigned for him in Gujarat. She did all kinds of somersaults with impunity for the sake of political power. She now speaks of Hinduisation by the BJP, but it was she who had handed over educational and cultural institutions to the BJP during her coalition rule and launched a drive for Hinduisation herself, through the slogan “haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” (not an elephant, it is Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh).

The Bubble Bursts

The astute electoral games the BSP played in the absence of a strong mainstream party worked for it in the short-run, but persistently ignoring its own promises to the Bahujans could cost it dearly. It refused to learn from the systematic erosion of its mass base in the states. When the BJP came in with full force in the 2014 elections, the BSP suffered its worst defeat since its inception, drawing a blank. Mayawati still refused to believe that her core constituency was already breached. In the 2017 elections, she took it for granted as before and thought that Muslims would support her. She gave them 100 seats without realising that it would mean giving the BJP as many seats on a platter. The erosion of the Dalit base of the BSP can be seen in the fact that Mayawati could win only two reserved seats. BSP’s 22.2% vote share is large enough for her to carry on but the chimera that she and Kanshi Ram created has certainly ended for the Dalits.

Updated On : 11th May, 2017


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