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On Judging Mayawati

On Judging Mayawati CHITTIBABU PADAVALA Anand Teltumbde


On Judging Mayawati


nand Teltumbde’s critical assessment of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s “success” in Uttar Pradesh, the obvious ambiguities of Mayawati’s victory, and how it does not portend a dalit raj (EPW, June 9) has to be welcomed. However, he has made some sweeping generalisations and drawn a few arbitrary conclusions.

Teltumbde says that Mayawati does not have a comprehensive plan that includes programmes such as land and resource redistribution. But the question is what Mayawati can do, and what a state government can accomplish within the limitations of our governmental system. Teltumbde does not appreciate the basic challenge she faces: empowering the dalits and putting an end to the discrimination against them. Unfortunately in post-independent India, the uplift or empowerment of dalits has always resulted in a simultaneous increase in their oppression. The development of other castes/communities, too, results in an increase in violence against dalits. Mayawati is going to face a tough time trying to uplift many backward communities, which in their quest for upward mobility display an eagerness to distinguish themselves from dalits by discriminating against them. The ascendant sudra communities soon realise the difficulty of challenging or overcoming the ‘dwija’ (twice-born) castes in activities pertaining to culture, public visibility, media, educational institutions, services, etc; they try to imitate the upper castes rather than compete with them. A way out has been to continue to regard the dalits as degraded in order to reinforce a certain “superiority”.

Such complexities do not seem to matter to Teltumbde. He simply seeks a comprehensive programme for development and resource redistribution. It is suicidal for a politician to come up with a contextblind concept of development. Let me cite an illustrative instance. In many villages in Andhra Pradesh the absence of a school causes less protest than the construction of it near a dalit street. Politicians and parties can appease various groups separately and gain from such a policy. But you cannot empower the dalits without antagonising others.

How do you do politics in such a world? Communists quickly learnt the hard lesson. Though their initial blindness to the dalit question was due to their brahminical prejudices and groundless hope that feudal vestiges would wither away, there have been some honest attempts to address the question of dalits. However, they were quick to learn that you cannot command the loyalty of the rest of society if you take dalit issues seriously. Most of the so-called hypocrisy of the communists in the face of the dalit question can be explained by this, rather than by any essentialist understanding of its leadership’s caste origins. In fact, all enduring groups in India are minorities given the size and diversity of the country. While most other groups are allowed to be indifferent and coexist, it is only dalits who are not permitted to coexist peacefully.

The greatest challenge before Mayawati undoubtedly is that of reaching out to the “middle” castes. In terms of caste, they are the Other Backward Classes (OBCs); in class terms, they are middle peasants. No party can think of winning elections without the support of this numerically substantial, resource-rich and power-seeking constituency. It should not be forgotten that even in her greatest triumph, she could not win the confidence of this constituency that remains firmly with Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Brahmins and the Caste Calculus

Many false paradoxes are pointed out in the media analyses of the BSP victory in Uttar Pradesh. The most frequently cited paradox is the supposed contradiction in the coming together of brahmins and dalits to vote for the BSP. Unlike journalistic analysts and progressive intellectuals, the common people do not see the caste system as a textbook entity. It is a matter of life and death; not an idea or ideology coded in the “sacred texts”. It is not a superstition that has outlived its time, causing embarrassment to one’s sense of being enlightened. It is a part of daily life enmeshed in the questions of power and resources. For ordinary dalits, the texts brahmins take pride in are not important but what is important is the everyday encounter with the dominant sudras on whom they are dependent and whom they also resist. Electoral alliances are not about deep social and psychological transformations. People are aware that issues will not be resolved only at the level of culture without reference to power. Thus they find no problem in aligning with brahmins as opposed to dominant sudras and even the OBCs.

If Mayawati is praised for being everybody’s leader, Teltumbde objects to it by saying that her solid support base is just dalits and that the support of the others is volatile. If you claim that she demonstrates dalit power, he would point to the possibility of her being poised to implement the non-dalit agenda and protect anti-dalit interests because she has won with the support of non-dalit votes. With his pessimism, which borders on the cynical, he does not see the genuine problems faced by this leader. Despite such realpolitik complexities, Teltumbde sees scope only for her opportunism there and does not see the genuine difficulties she faces. At one point in his essay he says, “There is an intrinsic conceptual error in assuming that the BSP as a dalit party. At no time BSP, even from the times of its precursor movements like BAMCEF and DS4, had claimed to be a dalit party. As its name eloquently suggests, it is a bahujan party.” However, a moment later he asserts, “even though the BSP likes to don the bahujan identity, in reality its base has been dalits. It is they who provide a foundation for its victories.”

Teltumbde’s understanding of the construction of dalit identity in UP is equally perplexing. He writes rather inaccurately: “The process of constructing a rock solid constituency of this mass of dalits comprised systematic operation of exclusivist strategy with a rhetoric of manuvad, an offensive lingo against the dwija castes and later use of political power to reinforce dalit identity by promoting dalit icons.”

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

Every dalit knows that it is the upper castes that construct dalit identity while the latter are always ready to forget and generally relinquish the claims to a separate identity. The significance of the early attempts by Kanshi Ram to organise dalits as a separate political entity – while they were already a separated social community – is completely missed by Teltumbde. He merely notes that Kanshi Ram used to ask the upper castes among the audience to leave his meetings. Teltumbde, however, forgets to add that even at the height of the BSP’s power today, it does not entertain the idea of asking the upper castes to leave their homes in villages. After objecting to Kanshi Ram’s exclusivism, Teltumbde’s complaint now is that the upper castes are over-represented in Mayawati’s party and government. If the BSP is exclusivist, it is a problem; if it is inclusive, it is no less a villain. What appears to be consistent in such an attack is nothing less than an uncompromising antagonism towards Mayawati and the party she represents.

It does not occur to Teltumbde that even the CPI(M) with three decades of uninterrupted power in West Bengal, strong organisation and ideological indoctrination could not behave the way it wants to largely because it is caught up in a quasifederal system whose meta-logic is for everybody to obey. If he thinks that without the socialist restructuring of society dalit problems cannot be solved, he should say that. Then his argument would be that the problems of dalits are structural and cannot be solved at the electoral and governmental level. It would not have to depend much on attributing opportunism to the dalit leaders, parties and mobilisations that think differently. Teltumbde’s fixed solutions do not grant any credit to the struggles and compromises of the dalit movements, dalit politics and its leaders with the hope of improving their lot with the available means under the prevailing conditions. Perhaps he should recall Marx’s famous passage: “Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” The dalits cannot wait, unlike intellectuals, until the ultimate moment of socialist revolution. This small section of humanity sets certain realistic goals for itself and sees what it can achieve.

Forging coalitions and manoeuvring numbers in elections amount to nothing but opportunism for Teltumbde. One wonders what he thinks of a revolution whose calculations involve brute force and strategy. The so-called electioneering and “social engineering” (an insensitive phrase), are ways of dealing with people; not coercing them. Getting people to vote may be a less edifying task than talking them into taking up arms, but it is not a crime either.

Dalit movements have one inherent and inescapable shortcoming: almost everywhere, from the national to the village level, they are a minority. Against them even the otherwise passive or conflicting communities come together. Any politics based completely and solely on the mobilisation of dalits runs the risk of antagonising the majority of society. So far, all unifying social movements could succeed only by sidelining the problems of the dalits. In such unfortunate circumstances state power alone can achieve certain necessary, though not sufficient, tasks for dalits and dalit movements. One of them is eliminating the disqualification of dalits to be in important positions in the public space. Occupying public office and using it to dispel the myth of dalit inability is an end in itself.

Perhaps Teltumbde would also evaluate the importance of B R Ambedkar or K R Narayanan only in terms of what they achieved or failed to achieve. They played a much bigger role than any rigidly biographical or historical account can capture. Their impact on the lives of dalits – as symbols, as sources of confidence and self-worth – goes beyond their actual doings. Mayawati’s victory has to be placed within the same framework.

What is really surprising is that while Teltumbde finds no problem with the existing, even popular, yardsticks of measuring a political phenomenon he fails to appreciate the single most important aspect of being a dalit politician. So far, dalits could be legislators only from reserved constituencies. Given that most voters are non-dalits even in reserved constituencies, it is only the candidate most appealing or least objectionable to nondalit voters who wins the election. Mayawati emerged triumphant from within such structural limitations imposed on dalit politicians. We must also remember that only four of the 93 dalit BSP candidates were fielded in general constituencies. And of the four none could win, whereas 62 of the 89 fielded in reserved constituencies won. This shows that even today the “sarvajan” support to BSP is not unconditional; a dalit, even in Mayawati’s UP, is expected to contest and win only from reserved areas. Despite such structural limitations, Mayawati today is there as chief minister with mostly non-dalit votes.

Meaning of Victory

What then is the meaning and significance of such a victory? We should not equate the government with the state and the state with society and economy. Then there is the issue of the relative autonomy of the state and its fallout: autonomy of the government. We have an amazingly enlightened Constitution given the overall backwardness of our society. Here is an opportunity to even implement it. Implementing the basic constitutional provisions itself amounts to a radical programme. I do not think Mayawati will be able to make the best of these provisions even if she wants to. But what she can really achieve by simply being the chief minister is this: many atrocities against dalits are perpetrated not because the culprits are very strong but because the dalits are weak. Such elements will now get an exaggerated idea of dalit power and this will have some deterring effect. Rather than narrowly focusing on what the Mayawati government will or will not do, it would be better to ask whether the UP dalits can use this opportunity and achieve higher levels of education, conversion, mobility, visibility. It is here that the role of organisations, social movements and intellectuals becomes important. Will the dalit intellectual strata provide such a direction, inspiration and participation or will it simply wait for the government to do everything?

Mayawati’s victory potentially served no bigger purpose than to facilitate the removal of certain hurdles for dalits. If the ruling classes and castes cannot dethrone Mayawati in the next election, or stop her from becoming the prime minister in the future, they will definitely try to strike a deal with her. The only immunity from such a nightmarish future for dalit politics is through intense and effective educational and cultural movements in UP, which alone can create a dalit constituency that can take the smoothest road to social transformation. Therefore, the question is not what Mayawati can do for dalits but what dalits can do for themselves when she is around.



Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

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