The Elephant in the Mud: Crisis of Identity Politics and BSP

Source: Countercurrents.org

By Skand Priya

The BSP, SP and RLD pre election alliance in UP was formed keeping in view the percentage numbers that these parties had secured in the previous general elections of 2014. The combined vote share of these parties was nearly 42 percent then and it was anticipated that they would be able to secure their shares in this election too and the candidates of the alliance will be in winning positions in nearly all the seats in UP. But things did not go as they expected, BJP again has been able to get 62 seats in UP and its vote percentage has also increased.

As was in 2014, in this election too SP could get 5 seats only and RLD has not been able to open its account, on the other hand BSP has been able to increase its number from 0 to 10. To some the alliance may seem a complete failure and for others it may look like a beneficial prospect for the BSP, but a close analysis of the post 1980s politics of the state enables us to understand the nuances through which the caste based identity politics has been shaping the contours of the political arena of the state.

The percentage of vote that the BSP has got in 2019 is 19.3 and it is nearly the same as that of 2014 which was 19.6. Also in the state assembly elections of 2012 and 2017 its vote share has remained between 25 to 22 percentages.

My intention in giving so many numbers here is only to show that though the number of seats of the BSP has been varying, its vote share has been remaining more or less the same. It only shows that whether Mayawati and her party has been doing good or bad for its core voters or even if she is remaining indifferent towards them, the voters of the BSP had kept on voting for her. And these are the inevitable repercussions of the identity politics. The percentage numbers of the allied parties was expected to club to bring the number of seats but it did not and on the other hand the percentage number of the allied remained nearly intact.

Interestingly, though the numbers play a big role in identity politics, but it did not bring the colours in case of the alliance. I will trace here some of the key feature of identity politics in UP especially in the context of politics of the BSP and will try to delineate how this caste based politics has been like a pitfall for the dalits of UP.

The alliance and BSP

The present alliance was actually in alignment with the idea which founder of BSP, Kanshi Ram was propagating right from the inception of the party. Though Kanshi Ram used to talk about bringing all the SC, ST, OBC and minorities under one umbrella of Bahujan, here in this alliance the more prominent parts of the Bahujan, i.e. Dalits(specially Jatavas), Yadavas and Jats were the players and they did vote for their party. But the baggage of the caste based identity politics simply did not allow the Jatavas to vote for SP and RLD in most of the cases. And so was true for the Yadavas and the Jats.

This specific voting preference of these castes has to be located in the context of the demography and changing politico-economic conditions of the state in the post independence period. Certain intermediary castes which were big in numbers and also who also got good control over land recourses after the zamindari abolition became dominant castes. Yadavas, Jats, thakurs and Kurmis were the prominent among them. And thus Yadavas and Jats among others as dominant castes have been the immediate oppressors of the dalits.

So Kanshi Ram’s idea of bringing together all the non savarana caste hindus, and making a grand coalition against Brahmanical hegemony could not work for this simple reason. And even among dalits the caste Jatav is most numerous, i.e. 57 percent and they have been most ardent followers of Ambedkar. In this practical sense any attempt of bringing together these castes would be a difficult task.

In the 1980s, the period when lower castes were seeking assertion through identity politics, the BSP and its Dalit constituency employed three strategies to achieve its objective. The first was to publicly showcase Dalit caste identities with great pride. The second strategy was that of adopting individual caste titles to their proper names. The third and final strategy was of puncturing upper-caste pride through the Dalit adoption of the former’s caste titles, supposed to be the exclusive preserve of the caste Hindus. The presence of Ambedkar’s statues in the Dalit localities motivated and shaped the contours of their politically charged identities.

In UP and adjoining areas of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh where the BSP gained most of its success, the pattern of relationship between the Dalits and Shudra castes are not much different from the cases mentioned above. Dalits in UP constitute 21.1% of the total population in the state and among them only single Dalit Chamar-Jatavhas 57% of the total Dalit population followed by Pasis who are 16% and then comes the Dhobi, Kori and Valmiki. Because of this unique distribution of Dalit castes in UP, there is no significant competition and rivalry between these Dalit castes and they can be politically united with a common community interest. Unlike the Dalits of other states, Jatav-Chamar has been financially well and politically more organized since the days of BabasahebAmbedkar. 

These factors concerning the economic and political condition of Dalits in UP has brought them in constant opposition and tussle with other social groups of the state. Apart from Brahmin, Kshatriya (among them Thakur and Rajput) and Vaishya castes, the post-independence period is marked by the economic and political assertion of the Shudra castes that constitute nearly 45% of the total population and among them especially the Yadavas, Lodh, Pal-Baghel, Kurmi and Jats are very well-off.

These demographic conditions in UP has kept the Dalits and Shudras in constant rivalry and this rivalry has actually increased after the 1980s with the growth of identity politics in the state. STs constitute a small section in the state and the religious minorities have always remained in dilemma on the question of which party is of their own. In this sense Bahujan as a category based upon the alliance between dalits, shudras and minorities had the lacunae of cohesive and organic unity.

Though the Shudra and Dalits identified themselves as politically allied upon the call of their leaders, Shudra would not have been ready to form a Bahujan front under the leadership of the Dalits. In 1993 with the BSP and SP alliance, slogans like Mile MulayamKanshiram, Hawa me Udgaye Jai shri Ram (With the alliance of Mulayam Singh Yadav And Kanshiram, Ram (Temple) got blew away in the air) were in the political air but, this alliance was possible against a common oppressor Brahmanism and only under the leadership of both.

Consolidation of votes and Opportunist Alliances

Thus in spite of having bahujan at its core, the BSP could only consolidate the dalit votes in general, and the chamar (jatav) votes in particular. After contesting the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections for nearly 10 years, the Party in 1996 Lok Sabha elections could secure 3% of upper caste votes, 4.3 per cent of yadava votes, between 15 and 20 per cent of the peasant, artisan and other backward castes votes, nearly 25 per cent of koeri votes but, it got 45.7 per cent of pasi vote and a very high 73.8 per cent of the chamar votes in UP.

Thus, except the koeris, no other backward castes had any particular closeness to the BSP. In the next elections to come after 1996, BSP could see tiny decrease in its votes among non jatav, non pasidalits, who eventually inclined towards The BJP but, the BSP actually started gaining among the upper castes. While only 3.6 per cent of the BSP’s voters in 1996 came from upper castes, this percentage went up to 10.2 in 1998. There is a possibility of lower class upper caste voters getting influenced by the schemes for thepoor that Mayawati launched when she was in power earlier though for a brief period.

Even in the next UP assembly polls in 2002, this trend of consolidation of Dalit votes together with upper caste alliance especially the Brahmins became much clearer.  In 2002 the BSP got 67% of dalit votes with that of Brahmins’ increased to 6%. Muslims by now have been voting largely for SP and rest were with Congress and BSP. By then it was very clear that the core voter of BSP is only dalits and among them especially Chamar-Jatav and possibility of an opportunistic alliance with the upper castes led by Brahmin were becoming tangible.

In fact making and availing the opportunistic alliances was never a new thing for Kanshiram and Mayawati both. The initial alliance with the SP in 1993 was formed considering the two competing mobilisational strategies of caste and communalism. While the Hindu caste cleavages arising from the Mandal reservation policy attracted BJP, the BSP moved closer to the SP representing the backwards. It contained the Hindutva of BJP and constructed a “Bahujan Samaj” based upon dalits, backwards and tribals drawing inspiration from Ambedkar’s conception of an autonomous Dalit Movement with a constantly attempted alliance of dalits and shudras.

This strategy proved successful in the 1993 elections and was perceived as the victory of the secular forces and lower orders against entrenched upper caste rule. The fall of the SP-BSP coalition in June 1995 inaugurated a post- Bahujan phase when BSP formed three coalition governments with the BJP in 1995, 1997 and 2002 and an electoral alliance with Congress. In 2002 Mayawati formed a coalition government with the BJP despite the ill-fated previous alliances and In return she extended support to the BJP in the Loksabha. The government lasted for 16 months. It was a tactical shift for attaining political power by any mean.

This desperation of Kanshiram to form the governments by any means was actually the manifestation of his pragmatic implementation of Ambedkar’s motto that political power was the master key for dalit liberation and that acquiring this masker key should be the prime dalit strategy. It was through the policies of these initial coalition governments that the BSP was successful in consolidating its vote bank. Apart from symbolic transformation of the landscape of UP like changes of names of places and erection of Ambedkar’s statues, policies related to health, education, housing, employment and social welfare, targeting Dalits resulted into near exclusive appropriation and then consolidation of dalits as core voters of the BSP.

Even later on with the party’s emphasis on sarvajan hitaya policy and their preparation for a long period, in UP assembly elections of 2007 the party garnered 30.46% votes with 206 seats which were enough for a full majority government. This victory was seen by political analysts as a victory of the social engineering method, based upon dalit-brahmin alliance of the sarvajan policy adopted by Mayawati. Scholars like Vivek Kumar, on the contrary argue that the dalit-brahmin alliance in UP was not part of any social engineering process but a pure political adjustment.

Whatever explanations one come across, the fact remains that it was the success of Mayawati’s bargaining with the non-dalit social groups of the state, whose leaders she later awarded with high positions in the upcoming government. More interestingly, as BSP secured 77% of dalit votes, it was the victory of mayawati’s politics vis-à-vis dalits; they stood by her rock like and won her unencumbered power. Skepticisms were there that the Sarvajan strategy during the process of adding upper caste votes to the BSP may lead to danger of alienating some of the Jatava/chamars, who constituted her core constituency, but not only just then, even in the upcoming elections, the dalits in UP chose Mayawati over all the other competitive. Be it in the state assembly elections of 2012 and 2017 or in the parliamentary elections of 2009, 2014 and 2019, the percentage of Jatava/chamar votes that the party garnered remained more or less the same.

On the other hand the lucrative savarna vote, which made the BSP shift its policy towards SarvajanHitaya, has been constantly moving away from the party,  bringing it on its electoral margins.

The inexorable treachery of Identity Politics

Even after BSP took the road toward decline since 2009, Mayawati has kept on saying that her vote bank has remained intact and the core voter of the BSP still has faith in the Party. And she is quite correct in this, as the core voter of the party has been the Dalits of UP and among them especially the Chamar-Jatav, who has been voting for the BSP since its inception and till today consider it as the only party representing and working for the interests of the Dalits. Despite various measures undertaken by Mayawati which stood in complete opposition with the ideals and aims of the party founder Kanshiram, Dalits in UP has always remained with the party and they do not seem to disassociate themselves from the BSP in the near future to come.

One can mention here the 2007 policy of Sarvajan Hitaya Sarvajan Sukhaya, when Mayawati in her effort of establishing an alliance with all the castes of society including the Savarna, completely sidelined the ideal of Bahujan for the interest of which Kanshiram always strove. The policy of Sarvajan Hitaya off course brought huge success for the Party in 2007 assembly elections and made Mayawati the chief of a full majority government.

Dalits of UP saw it as an opportunity and envisaged thatMayawati can also become the prime minister of India by continuing on this path of Sarvajana. She gave the call for social engineering for the next general elections and Dalits started their mission 2009.

Things did not happen as they expected, the BSP could secure 21 seats in the 2009 general elections and its vote share also came down. The hopes of Dalits of UP to see their Behenji as the prime minister were lost, but their confidence in Mayawati as the savior of Dalits and in the BSP has remained as strong as it has always been. Since then the party has not seen any significant elevation and on the contrary things have come to such an extent that by now the party has only 10 members in Loksabha and Just 19 members in the UP state assembly and that is all that the BSP can boast about.

What happened exactly that the Party which once became the third largest party at the national level very swiftly after its inception is seeing such worst days? Various Dalit intellectuals and ex-members of the party who even have been long time companions of Kanshiram see this condition of the BSP as the result of deviation from the mission of Kanshiram which happened because of over ambitions and selfish nature of Mayawati. These veterans consider Mayawati’s Sarvajan policy as a breach from the missionary path of Kanshiram and held her over ambitious nature, responsible for the failure of the mission.

Keeping in mind the time, energy and resources that most of these sidelined veterans have given for nourishing and developing the party, their anger against Mayawati is justifiable, but their explanation for the demise of the BSP to be only the policies and character of Mayawati is problematic. Since these causative factors fail to explain why the Dalits in UP are still intact with the BSP and why they still have all the trust and hopes in Mayawati and her symbols, one is coerced to critically look at the identity politics that the BSP has been doing right from its beginning.

For understanding this complex phenomena one needs to look deeply at the process through which the Dalits in UP started identifying themselves with the symbols which the politics of BSP has created. This method also explains why the BSP when in power could not do significantly for the materialistic development of the Dalits, though Kanshiram always talked political power to be the master key which would bring all-round benefits for the Dalits.

What identity politics actually does is that it tries to bring together members of caste/castes for political assertion. The unification process generally takes place through the means of certain symbols. The politically charged identities once created, becomes indelible and in the long run the assertion does not happen materially. The Jatavas of UP are actually witness to the same process of creation of politically charged identities and in such a politics they have reached a juncture where there assertion seems a chimera. The politics of BSP can be seen as non Ambedkarite in the sense that instead of annihilating caste in consolidates it through identity politics for political gains.

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