In 2004, as then Congress president Sonia Gandhi went about building alliances, starting with walking over to her 10 Janpath neighbour, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan, she had a relatively easy task reaching out to other parties. Of course, then too the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had remained outside the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It was Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav who was upfront in aligning with the Congress and supporting Mrs Gandhi. However, 14 years later, her son and now Congress president Rahul Gandhi faces a much tougher task. The Congress is not strong in terms of numbers in the Lok Sabha — 114 in 1999 to just 44 in 2014 — though it was and remains the single largest party.
In 2004, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its Left Front allies were in a formidable position in West Bengal. They have been decimated there now. The prospects of an anti-BJP alliance look weaker than it was in 2004. The only bright spot is the fact that the irreconcilable local rivals in Uttar Pradesh, the SP and BSP, had banded together for the Lok Sabha byelections and won three of them, and the Congress and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have been part of it as well in 2017-18. So there has emerged a grand alliance or “mahagathbandhan” in the key state of Uttar Pradesh as there had been one for the Assembly elections in Bihar in 2015 between local rivals Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar and the RJD. The Congress had joined that alliance. The Bihar formation had subsequently broken with Mr Kumar going back to his earlier alliance with the BJP.
It is against this background that BSP president Mayawati’s observation that her party would enter into an electoral alliance with the Congress for the forthcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan only if the BSP was given a “respectable number of seats” to contest, and that alternatively her party would go it alone in these three states, should be seen. She did not say whether the grand alliance in UP would hold despite there being no alliances in these three states. At the moment, the BSP is a force to reckon with only in UP and nowhere else. Political pundits point out that there are at least 12 to 20 Assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh where her party’s presence would make a difference. But it remains an untested claim. The simple fact is that the BSP is not yet a pan-Indian dalit party. From the days of BSP founder Kanshi Ram, there have been determined efforts to expand the party’s dalit base across the country, but it has not met with much success.
It is rational, therefore, that Ms Mayawati keeps at the effort to create a dalit base for her party in states other than UP as well, and that the Congress should have reservations about sharing its own dalit votes with the BSP. Ms Mayawati is not making a demand that is beyond her capacity. What she wants is the recognition that she represents dalit interests. The Congress will have the delicate task of yielding a bit of the ground to her without sacrificing its own dalit base. It would, of course, be presumptuous to argue that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not have its own dalit base generally, but the cow vigilantes with their attacks on dalits over the issue of cow and beef have shown the BJP to be a party hostile to the dalit way of life. The shameful silence of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), over the anti-dalit violence had not been helpful. The attempt of the BJP and RSS to nurture middle class dalit groups opposed to the BSP and the Congress haven’t been successful. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to appropriate Dr B.R. Ambedkar by arguing that the Congress had not given due respect to the dalit icon has remained a propaganda gambit.
The Congress has no clash of interests in terms of voter base either with the SP or RJD because the backward class or the intermediate caste vote was never with the Congress. It is not the same in the case of the dalit vote. The BSP had succeeded in taking away the dalit vote only in UP and not in other states. Many Congress leaders in their unguarded moments argue that the Congress is the only guardian of dalit interests, a claim that may not pass muster as social and political equations change.
It would be unrealistic to argue that there cannot remain a distinct dalit political constituency as India becomes one of the top economies in the world. The social and political reality is unlikely to change and the politics for and against dalits, as in the case of other social groups, will only become sharper before it becomes better. Dalits in India remain in the same position as blacks or African-Americans in the United States. The issues are much too complicated to admit of simplistic answers. In the US, the situation has become complicated with the other immigrant groups like Latinos, Chinese, Indians, Koreans and Vietnamese jostling with the blacks much more than with the majority whites. Similarly, in India, the battle is no more between the old upper caste/class of brahmins et al but the confrontation is now between the middle castes and the dalits, which translates into conflict situations between Jats/Yadavs/Reddys/Kammas/Marathas on the one hand and the dalits on the other.
There is much at stake for both the Congress and the BSP to the dalit constituency, and the negotiations will be tough. It does not make sense to blame either of them for defending their respective claims to represent dalit interests. But the two parties will have to yield a bit of the ground to face the BJP challenge in 2019....