Review: Mobilising the Marginalised: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements by Amit Ahuja

Updated on Apr 06, 2020 08:20 PM IST

Amit Ahuja examines why political success and improvement in the socio-economic status of Dalits has not gone together in UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Traditionally, Dalit assertion has been seen as critical of the world view of the BJP. There are signs that this could be changing.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, December 22, 2019. Traditionally, Dalit assertion has been seen as critical of the world view of the BJP. There are signs that this could be changing.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Hindustan Times | By
238pp, Rs 550; Oxford University Press
238pp, Rs 550; Oxford University Press

It is fashionable, especially among the urban middle classes in India, to portray elections as a caste-versus-development contest, where the latter always ends up losing. More often than not, development is seen under threat if a leader from a socially-deprived caste is successful in getting elected. This sweeping generalisation is rightly critiqued on the grounds that belonging to the bottom of the caste hierarchy is the single biggest hindrance to achieving progress in India. Therefore, the socially (and hence economically) backward people are justified in seeking solutions to their problems through democratic politics. The hope of achieving equality through universal suffrage, among India’s discriminated-against and downtrodden, is the most basic foundation of our democratic stability.

After seven decades of the republic, how has this interaction between social deprivation and democratic participation evolved in India? What is the best way to even evaluate this process? How important and useful are election results and political parties in understanding these changes? Even within the realm of electoral politics, what difference does it make to the fortunes of a group that has been socially discriminated against when a political party is formed and led by a person belonging to their own social background? What future lessons, if any, can be drawn from looking at these questions?

Important and fascinating as these issues are, they are also very difficult to answer. At no point can the quest to answer these questions stray into the realm of either condescension or sectarianism. The former is still rampant in the day-to-day discourse of the elite in our country. Various streams of India’s socially-deprived groups have suffered from the latter vice, and this phenomenon is proliferating. Also, given India’s vast diversity, any attempt to answer this question has to follow the approach of seeking truth from the facts rather than just grandstanding or rhetoric. It is here that Amit Ahuja’s Mobilising the Marginalised: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Revolutions is an excellent and thought-provoking piece of work, which tries to answer these questions while looking at Dalit politics in India.

The book frames this question in an interesting way. It looks at the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and the fortunes of a Dalit party: the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, and the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu. It also looks at the issue of Dalits vis-a-vis others in each of these states. While the BSP and the LJP, both of which were formed and continue to be led by Dalit leaders, have done politically well in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this has not led to a sharp improvement in the socio-economic status of Dalits in these states. In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, even though the BSP and the VCK have struggled to make a political mark, Dalits are much better off than their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on not just individual well being indicators such as literacy, access to electricity and poverty, but also social and political dignity, and their capacity for asserting themselves.

What explains this apparent mismatch? Ahuja explains this by forwarding a thesis of the difference between performance of ethnic parties (in this case Dalit parties) in movement (Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra) and non-movement (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) states. He argues that states with a history of assertion and movement against social discrimination actually gave Dalits a political voice from early on. This, he argues, forced mainstream parties to acknowledge their issues, both social and economic, in the macro political discourse. This ensured that the pursuit of issues of Dalit interest was not contingent on a particular party being in power. A political competition for Dalit votes also meant that they did not have to stick to one political party and therefore nobody would take them for granted. On the contrary, mainstream political parties in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had mostly apathy for the Dalit cause, which, while it triggered the rise of Dalit parties such as the BSP and LJP, has also reduced significant parts of the Dalit population such as the Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh and Dusadhs in Bihar, to being perceived as captive vote banks of the BSP and the LJP respectively.

Does this mean that the emergence of Dalit parties is inimical to Dalit interests? Not necessarily. The political voice, which a force like the BSP gave to Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, has forced other parties to take note and change their strategies. Ahuja notes how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has evolved its position on Ambedkar and reservations to attract the Dalit voter in Uttar Pradesh. Have the gains of mainstream discourse being sensitive to Dalit issues accrued outside movement states? Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra were pioneers in India’s two most important welfare schemes, mid-day meals and MGNREGS, which have brought huge benefits to the poorest, most of whom are also Dalits.

Author Amit Ahuja
Author Amit Ahuja

To be sure, there are some questions which the book could not have answered. This is mainly because Indian politics has undergone a paradigm shift in the recent period. In 2019, the BJP returned to power with a bigger majority, dispelling all claims that its 2014 victory was a black swan event. Given the fact that it does not even court Muslim support sincerely, such a victory could not have come without significant support from Dalits. Traditionally, Dalit assertion has been seen as critical of orthodox Hinduism and therefore the world view of the BJP and its fellow travellers. However, today there are signs that this could be changing. While the BJP has been proactive to guard constitutional provisions for the security of Dalits, seen in its decision to overturn a Supreme Court order diluting certain provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities against SC-ST Act, it has been diluting other provisions simultaneously. The biggest proof of this is the policy of allowing reservations, which were originally tied with the idea of historic social discrimination, for the economically poor among the upper castes. Similarly, while portraying itself as a champion of Dalit culture and their cultural icons, an effort is also being made to pit Dalits against Muslims in various ways. Efforts to mobilise communities such as Namashudras in West Bengal, on issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, something which has alienated large section of Muslims in the country, is one such example.

Read more: How share of jobs varies within social groups

How will these developments impact both Dalits and overall politics in India? Can new social movements championing Dalit ethnicity counter the BJP’s larger ethnic project of consolidating all Hindus? One hopes that younger scholars will draw inspiration from Ahuja’s scholarship and efforts in developing his framework to answer these questions in the future.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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