Behenji: the pragmatist politician, power games & Dalit aspirations

With elections looming over the Uttar Pradesh horizon, recently (Nov 2011) UP Chief Minister Mayawati declared that her cabinet has approved the proposal to divide the state of UP into four smaller states. She declared that only a dalit-OBC Chief Minister would be able to solve the problems of dalit-OBCs. There is also talk of giving reservation to Muslims in UP. All this has created a huge turmoil in political circles. Amongst the politicians who have risen at a fast pace during the last couple of decades, Mayawati, the associate of late Kanshiram may be the foremost. While she inherited the movement built by Kanshiram, she also showed her mettle in capturing the seat of power in the challenging arena of politics. Her Prime Ministerial ambitions at the moment are not very manifest, though immediately after her getting an absolute majority in the previous UP assembly elections she projected the same as a ‘dalit ki beti’as Prime Minster (Daughter of a dalit).

Many a times she has been in the news for the wrong reasons, ‘Taj Corridor’ case, her lavish spending on Ambedkar park and getting numerous statues not only of the past dalit icons like Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar, and Kanshiram but her own-too during the last few years, have hogged media attention. The major issue she uses self promotion is that all this expenditure has been incurred, for the sake of dalits. What do dalits need at this point of time and in what proportion is an issue to be debated in a serious manner. Of late she has been also talking of reservation on the economic criterion rather than the caste one, and from the point of view of electoral arithmetic she has been wooing the Brahmins, through ‘Brahmin Bhaichara’ Sammelans (Gatherings for brotherhood with Brahmins).  Her major advisor has been Satish Mishra, who not only has succeeded in getting many plum posts for his close relatives, but also a University has been named after his mother’s name. From her earlier slogan of Bahujan Samaj, she has moved to the slogan of Sarvjan Samaj and from the shooing away of Brahmins and upper castes she has been aggressively campaigning to get them on her side. While she has undoubtedly given a sense of empowerment to dalits, identity assertions have really helped dalits live with more self respect and social dignity. While the atrocities against them have shown a downward trend in UP, what is debatable is the equity issues, economic empowerment of dalits which have remained in the limbo despite her regime in the state. How should a dalit leader handle power, what sort of equations are needed to balance between ‘equity issues’ and ‘identity issues’ is again a matter of delicate balance.

Dalits in India have gone through a long and painful struggle for equality and dignity. The most profound contribution of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, coming in the backdrop of Jotiba Phule laid the foundation of the movement of and for the down trodden. Ambedkar, the profound scholar contributed to all aspects of dalits’ social and political life. He led the struggles for the rights of dalits, who till that time were deprived of fundamental rights, were mostly landed slaves and were under the grip of clergy and kept on the margins of society. Ambedkar led movements, Chavdar Talab, Kalaram Mandir and Manusmriti burning were the major rallying points for dalits. His formation of independent Labor Party, Schedule caste Federation and later the concept of Republican Party were milestones in the organizing of dalits. The opportunity to concretize Ambedkars’ values were actualized when he became the chairman of drafting committee of the Indian Constitution. He tactfully handled many vexed issues related to overall efforts towards social transformation, with regards to caste in particular. His major slogan was: educate, organize and agitate for the rights of dalits.

The later period was marked by a few agitations and more of political activity. The remarkable ones amongst these were the land reform movement of Dada Saheb Gaikwad and later the formation of Dalit Panthers by dalit youths, on the lines of Black panthers of US. Most of these movements later got fragmented and the plight of dalit politics became abysmal with the ruling parties trying their best and succeeding in wooing one or the other dalit politician. The electoral confusions were another dimension of their alliances, some of them tilted towards Congress, while others had no compunctions in allying with avowed Hindutva parties hailing Hindu Rashtra openly, allying with the forces eulogizing Manusmiriti and a Hindu nation. Mayawati at one time not only allied with the BJP in UP to come to power but also went on to campaign for Narendra Modi in elections in the aftermath of Godhra-Gujarat carnage.

Around the time when Dalit Panthers were agitating on the streets, Kanshiram began his political journey in a different way. His methods also ensured that the bane of dalit politics, ‘fragmentation into pieces’ of his movement will not take place. The dissenters were thrown out, and the dictates of the supreme leader, Kanshiram and later Mayawati prevailed. Kanshiram first started BAMCEF, which was an association of educated dalits, who believed in ‘pay back’ to the community. Their understanding was that they have prospered due to the provision of reservations for dalits. They got jobs due to these provisions. From here the non-electoral DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Sangharsh Samiti) was formed. The focus for Kanshiram during all this period was cadre training and outlining the threat of Manuvaad, Brahmanvad was considered the central threat to the interests of the downtrodden. Later Kanshiram went in to form Bahujan Samaj Party and in due course Maywati became his closest associate and she later succeeded him as Supreme leader once Kanshiram fell sick. The second major thrust of Kanshiram and later Mayawati was to come to power with whatever means and to try to implement their agenda.

The focus on capturing political power, the forming of trained cadres was the hallmark of Kanshiram, BSP. During the course of political journey of BSP, Mayawati kept on rising up on the electoral ladders in UP. She struck an alliance with RSS progeny BJP. Here two contrasting forces stood face to face, Mayawati for the rights of dalits and BJP for the long term goal of Hindu Rashtra, based on Brahmanism. This alliance was like Mayawati reversing, Ambedkar’s burning of Manusmriti and openly associating with the followers of Manu. Later with coming to political power on her own, she openly changed track. IN the initial days in BSP meetings, the slogan was ‘Tilak Tarazu aur Talwar, Ehko Maro Jute Char’ (Beat the upper caste) now it has been substituted by ‘Brahman Shankh Bajyega Hathi Badhta Jayega’ (Brahmin will lead: Followers of BSP will progress).

The Elephant, electoral slogan of BSP got recast, ‘Hathi Nahi Ganesh hai: Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai’ (It is not elephant-Its Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh: Hindu Gods). The political ambition of power has a strange logic of its own. Mayawati’s spending millions on elephant statues, and the statues of her own self smacks of identity politics taken to absurd limits. One concedes that dalits do need space in the social sphere, these statues must be giving them a sense of dignity and belonging. The question is how much public spending can be allowed to the statues and how much should be spent for social welfare of dalits has to be rethought. The dalit politics has come to new crossroads. The core issues of dalits remains far from being solved in any substantive way. The problems of poverty, health, employment need serious struggle, in case they are to be addressed. Can power, coming to power in this fashion, be the panacea for dalit issues? What happens to Ambedkar’s teachings of ‘educate, unite and struggle,’ this is what needs to be taken up by those leading the dalit movement at various levels. Can just coming to power be a goal in itself, is the question. (Issues in Secular Politics)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2011 on page no. 13

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