A Dalit-Muslim alliance isn't working, despite much investment in the idea
While the BJP's vote share jumped by six percentage points from 31 per cent in 2014 to 37 per cent in 2019, its Dalit vote share, as per CSDS, jumped by 10 percentage points.
'Provoked' by chants of Jai Shri Ram from the BJP benches as he went to take oath as Lok Sabha member on Wednesday, Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM ended his oath with the slogan 'Jai Bhim, Jai Meem, Allahu Akbar and Jai Hind'.
His uttering 'Jai Bhim', a Dalit political slogan referring to BR Ambedkar, before 'Allahu Akbar' was an indication of his belief that a Dalit-Muslim social alliance can take on an entrenched Hindutva.
In Maharastra, Owaisi's All-India Majlis-e-Muslimeen and Prakash Ambedkar's Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh came together to forge the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) to bring together Dalit and Muslim votes. It may have dented the Congress-NCP alliance. However, the BJP and Shiv Sena swept the polls, as in 2014.
In 2016, when he delivered an impassioned political speech after being released from Tihar jail, then JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar, now a leader of the CPI, said he was served food during his detention in two bowls: one red and the other blue. There were loud cheers from the left-leaning gathering of students, as they had understood the allegorical reference.
Red is a colour associated with left politics, while blue is the colour associated with Dalit politics.
The attempt was to suggest that a combination of left and Dalit politics could trump Hindutva. The need for such apparently anti-Hindutva social combines was also felt by many at the height of protests after the suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula, who was an Ambedkarite by ideological persuasion.
These instances aren't isolated examples.
There have been many in the intelligentsia who believe that Muslims and Dalits -- both apparently united in "ideological opposition" to the BJP -- can be a solid bulwark against the party. Those who believe this also hold that left and liberal voices, and perhaps even the Congress, should support such a potential social alliance.
This election has shown that the hypothesis isn't built around sound, empirical, grounds.
Lok Sabha elections 2019 have been unprecedented in terms of the BJP's one-sided electoral sweep. And as one analysis after another trickles down regarding what led to the one-sided verdict, some commonsensical beliefs regarding political behavior and social alliances need to be laid to rest.
Caste as Hindutva's antidote?
One is the belief -- held passionately by many commentators who are seen to be left or liberal -- that the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste hierarchy can join hands with Muslims to counter a Hindutva that is "Brahminical" and also "anti-Muslim" in orientation.
They also cite precedent for such combines in the past.
The 1993 SP-BSP alliance in UP -- where a party with a Muslim and OBC, particularly Yadav, vote bank combined with a Dalit party -- trumped the BJP at the height of the Ram Janmabhumi agitation. The BJP remained the single largest party but the other two formed a government that came down after SP members attacked BSP leader Mayawati in a Lucknow guest house in 1995.
The BJP's unexpected reversal brought forth the idea that caste -- which segments the hierarchical Hindu world -- could overwhelm Hindutva, which seeks to forge a Hindu unity vis-a-vis Muslims.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal's victories in Bihar -- this was a time when the state also saw much lawlessness -- through the 1990s and early 2000s further cemented the idea.
It also seemed in sync with a Louis Dumontian kind of sociology, where the caste system was linear and based on ritual hierarchy. The Dalit, it was argued, would have the highest stakes in countering a Hindu supremacist BJP, aligning with Muslims for the purpose, followed by the OBCs. The model, however, missed the dynamics of social relations on the ground, where there are OBC and Dalit clashes, as also Dalit and Muslim clashes.
It did capture the ideological zeal of middle class, aspirational, urban, Dalit youth, who invested heavily in Ambedkarite politics over the last few decades. But it did not take into account the diversity in the Dalit social world, both urban and rural. The fact that many riots broke out in localities where Muslim and Dalit settlements abutted, something many studies showed, was ignored. Or, this phenomenon was seen as an aspect of the rudimentary political consciousness of less educated Dalits, who, it was claimed, would inevitably embrace Ambedkarism with education.
Time has proved this belief wrong.
CSDS data show that as many as 34 per cent of Dalits have voted for the BJP this time. The upswing had begun in 2014 itself, when 24 per cent Dalits had supposedly voted for the party, and has continued even as Muslims have been increasingly marginalised from the public sphere. So, while the BJP's vote share jumped by six percentage points from 31 per cent in 2014 to 37 per cent in 2019, its Dalit vote share, as per CSDS, jumped by 10 percentage points.
The Dalit need for representation
The sustenance of a Dalit middle class with influence -- something which is central to the project of Dalit empowerment -- requires alignment with relevant political forces. This class has neither the resources nor the numbers to influence elections on its own. If the opposition to the BJP continues to be weak, it is possible that a large section of the Dalit leadership would be willing to do business with the BJP. For, there will be no other relevant political force to negotiate with.
Ram Vilas Paswan was once a critic of Hindutva but joined the Vajpayee government when it came to power. He left after the 2002 Gujarat riots but joined the NDA yet again with Modi's rise to the helm in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party -- a Dusadh Dalit organisation at the core -- is still part of the NDA.
Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athawale said it in so many words when he wished Rahul Gandhi on his birthday in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. His "wish' had the House in splits. For, Athawale's birthday wish was more of a dig at Rahul Gandhi the politician.
"Is it Rahul ji's birthday? Is it today or tomorrow?" he said, as Rahul, who was in the House, nodded."Well, he is my friend and let me congratulate him as he got an opportunity to sit here. I mean, he tried a lot... but these things happen in a democracy. The party people want comes to power. When you were in power, I was with you. This time before the elections, the Congress people told me, 'Why are you on that side, come here.' But I said, 'what would I do over there?' (I said this) because I knew the tide was towards Modi ji."
Athawale's RPI -- a Dalit political outfit from Maharashtra -- has been a UPA ally in the past. However, with the Congress' graph declining and the BJP's rising exponentially, the RPI is part of the NDA now.
So, even at the level of the middle classes among Dalits, the need for representation for a historically excluded community makes the BJP an attractive choice for many. A theoretical assertion of the "inherent contradiction" between Hindutva and the Dalit movement may well be wishful thinking. It isn't even sound theory any longer, as it reads the present through the prism of politics in the 1990s and 2000s.
Hindutva's deepening caste reach
The BJP's rise has also seen a deepening of representation for multiple caste groups within the BJP-NDA fold. The fact that the BJP need not accommodate Muslims offers it a surplus of positions to offer to sections of Dalits and OBCs. The Modi regime has made Ramnath Kovind, a Dalit, President of India and Thawarchand Gehlot, another Dalit politician, the leader of House in the Rajya Sabha. How long the party continues to do so -- and prevents its core, upper caste, constituency from claiming primacy -- remains to be seen. And it also remains to be seen how long mere symbolism can keep key questions like growing unemployment at bay.
The party first made inroads among the OBCs -- particularly the smaller OBC castes -- over the last two-three decades and has now reached out to sections of Dalits as well.
Widely reported attacks on Dalits during the Modi government's first term notwithstanding, the BJP's traction among Dalits has generally been on the rise. In fact, contrary to northern and western India, where the BJP first won over the upper castes and then proceeded to make inroads among other groups, the party's rise in Bengal has involved considerable tribal and Dalit support, if ground reports are any indication.
Clearly, caste is no longer a ready antidote to Hindutva. The latter has included many groups across the caste hierarchy within its fold. The process is reversible, but parties like the Congress will have to work from scratch among many caste groups, including OBCs and Dalits, to stem the tide. What they can offer is not known, since they don't have much to give. But that is one of the possible ways forward for them.
At the same time, they will have to engage with self-conscious Hindus -- a large constituency now -- to wean sections of them away from the BJP. Merely symbolic gestures, like Rahul Gandhi's temple visits, won't do. For, the BJP is far ahead of the Congress in this politics of symbolism. The Congress and regional parties will have to engage Hindus -- alongside the minorities -- in ways that bring to the fore their pressing material concerns, which have failed to come to the centre of debate in a largely symbolic political world after the rise of Modi.
The process will be long-drawn. There aren't any short cuts. But this is the only available road for an opposition revival. The past commonsense of caste combines may work in state polls but is unlikely to dent the BJP in Lok Sabha polls. At least there are no signs of an opposition revival at this juncture.