Mary Kaldor in her famous book on war, The Baroque Arsenal, analysed how generals are always fighting the last war. World War II might be over but generals still dream of the tank, which is being threatened by all forms of other more mobile and lethal machines. What is true of war is true of elections. Many psephologists and political leaders tend to reify the last election, considering it as a hallmark for the next one.
A few days ago, on BR Ambedkar’s anniversary, Mayawati spoke about reorganising the Bahujan Samaj Party and naming her brother Anand Kumar as vice-president. But that may not be enough in itself. Mayawati is an astute politician who committed the Kaldorian mistake while fighting the last few elections. Her BSP is based on a vision of Dalit caste identity and life and the recent elections showed that the Dalit issue has to be looked at in a different way. What we are confronting is two sets of changes. It is this tactical mix between the two-fold strategies of change that ripped apart Mayawati’s control of the BSP.
Fundamentally, one has to understand that any category which evokes a community, an identity, a mystery is a fluid one. The Dalit sense of identity in an electoral sense was created twice – once through the remaking of Ambedkar as a rational leader from a Dalit exemplar. Ambedkar became a national icon, whose statute established a presence in every constituency. Second was the organisation of Kanshi Ram to create a hyphenated strategy where the BSP in combination with another sector created a successful electoral mathematics. This idea came apart for two reasons. One was the changing nature of the Dalit self-definition and the other was the BJP’s understanding of social change.
One has to begin with an understanding of Dalit life before electoral arithmetic. A Dalit wants change, he aspires for many things other Indians do. But most of all he sees that struggle and aspiration can be two different strategies. He has before him the availability of a variety of tactical preferences. First, he can attempt to flow with the national mainstream, seeking to assimilate himself into an idea of citizenship. He becomes one among the democratic many. But the Dalit market is a varied one now. Instead of flowing into the national mainstream, a Dalit can merge into a Hindutva stereotype internalising the ideology of the BJP naturally passing himself off as part of the cleaner castes and occupations. It is a slow sanskritising game that works for some.
In the first, the Dalit becomes mainstream Indian, in the second, a ghar-wapasi Hindu and in the third, he can tend to forge a tighter Dalit identity which pushes away the bigger identities to consolidate a Dalit for himself identity. The word Dalit acquired a multiplicity of expectations and each choice became identified with a party. Congress played the citizens card, the BJP the Hindu game and Mayawati the Dalit identity monologue.
These choices were spread out as ecological possibilities that the Dalit could opt for. One has to realise that these are wider structural options outlined by earlier histories. The Dalit today has to combine them in different ways. Here tactics become critical and the men who understood that Dalit rather being a unity can become multiple and shuffled as a pack were Amit Shah and Modi. First, they realised they could play on Jatav and non-Jatav identity enacting out inner Dalit tensions. Second, they focused on a whole series of smaller parties consolidating egos and votes. Third there was a realisation that Dalit as a social group can be sectoralised generation and that the younger generationally of Dalits might have a different set of aspirations. They might be more youth than Dalit. Fourth, there was a question of electoral mathematics where Dalit was never a singular strategy. It always combined with another group like Muslim to consolidate a vote bank.
Modi and Shah realised they could shuffle combinations, create fluidities where one could whittle away votes from older formations, add new layers, create little political startups of the mind while Congress and Mayawati froze the script. The little fluidities added up to the numbers BJP needed.
Mayawati looks like yesterday’s newspaper while Modi-Shah look like a tactical primer because they read change in its tributaries rather than playing mainstream scenarios. What we then had was two processes. One was the Dalit tired of being frozen into cameo role imposed by Congress etc. and the variety of Dalits who could be tempted in different directions. Shah-Modi read their sociology, did the homework better, hinting to Dalits that success may be outside current rigidities. In teasing this out, they displayed a political acumen that read Dalit across several octaves. The result was the Dalit vote in UP. There is a realisation that Dalit today is a solidarity and a fluid pack. Electoral genius lies in shuffling the pack and that skill Modi’s BJP had.
Shiv Visvanathan is Social Science nomad.
The views expressed are personal