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Votes at the bottom of the pyramid

With the scramble for Dalit support having just begun, the main battle in UP may be between the Congress and the BSP. Reports Vikas Pathak.

india Updated: Nov 24, 2009 23:36 IST
Vikas Pathak

“Dalits have realised that they have to represent themselves. Rahul Gandhi’s visits just show paternalistic inclinations.” — Sociologist Vivek Kumar, JNU

“Movements are never confined to the idea that only the class of the victims should have leadership. To act and think beyond their birth is ennobling
for humans.” — Historian Mridula Mukherjee, director, Teen Murti

For the Dalit population of Uttar Pradesh, it is now becoming a choice between Chief Minister Mayawati and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

Munna Kumar, a Dalit daily wager in Noida, said: “Richer Harijans will shift to Rahul Gandhi, whose work is making a mark. But for poor Harijans, the BSP is still the best party.”

Raja Babu, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) activist from Aligarh, disagrees: “Half of the BSP government’s ministers are Brahmins and Thakurs. Dalits are disappointed. These castes are ruling even in the BSP regime. Even the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Act is not properly applied.” He adds: “If the Congress makes a Dalit state president, some Dalits will shift. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is anyway working well for the Congress.”

The Dalit vote bank is now crucial because that will largely decide which party will come to power in UP in 2012. This is Rahul Gandhi’s toughest challenge to date.

Mayawati, who is BSP president, was in a vulnerable spot when her party could secure only 20 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats
in UP in the 15th Lok Sabha polls, whose results were declared in May.

But in the 11 assembly by-elections held this month, the BSP romped home in nine seats. The Dalit vote seems to have rallied behind it strongly.

The Congress, which has begun planning a return to power in the largest Indian state (in terms of population) after securing 21 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, managed one assembly seat in this BSP landslide.

However, its candidate Raj Babbar trounced Mulayam Singh Yadav’s daughter-in-law Dimple in the lone Lok Sabha bypoll in Firozabad (249 km west of Lucknow).

And the Bharatiya Janata Party, which drew a blank, has lost its upper caste constituency, thus becoming virtually irrelevant.

The Samajwadi Party (SP), which too drew a blank, though it was second in six seats, is losing its once-strong Muslim votes.

The next fight in UP may see many Congress-BSP contests, with the BSP having the edge at the moment.

The Congress has begun to win over upper castes (20 per cent of UP’s population) and Muslims (another 18 per cent), two key constituents of its once-famed rainbow coalition that helped it to stay in power from 1947 to 1989, except for few brief phases. The Liberhan Commission’s position that the Congress government at the Centre was helpless during the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 may further endear it to Muslims.

But a victory would also need Dalit support to complete the old rainbow.

For now, Mayawati seems in command of her Dalit base, 21 per cent of UP’s population.

Who eventually wins depends on whether Gandhi can successfully question the primary basis of BSP mobilisation: that only a Dalit can represent Dalits. This is an extension of an approach popularised by Dalit leaders B.R. Ambedkar and, later, Kanshi Ram. Scholars like Paris-based Christophe Jaffrelot and Eva-Maria Hardtmann of Stockholm University have upheld it.

The argument: upper caste attempts at representing Dalits are paternalistic, and thus reinforce caste and divide Dalit

The Congress approach has been different. Mahatma Gandhi believed that non-Dalits should be guardians of Dalits.
He visited their huts on his famed Harijan tours in the 1930s.

So does Rahul seven decades later.

On January 15 — Mayawati’s 53rd birthday — he spent a night at the hut of Shivkumari Kori at Semara village of Sultanpur (132 km south-east of Lucknow).

Later, in September, he visited the hut of Chhedi Pasi, another Dalit, in Rampur-Deogan village of Shravasti district (140 km north-east of Lucknow).

Rahul Gandhi has brushed aside the Dalit angle to his village visits: “The frame of Dalits is your frame, not mine … You see him as a Dalit. I see him as a poor person. The difference is in the opportunities. They are as intelligent and as smart as you, but had no opportunity to go to a university.”

But the message is the same: Politics cannot work just on Dalit identity, but has to treat Dalits as part of society’s poor. All, thus, must come forward to accommodate them.

Mayawati has fumed at these visits. “He bathes with a special soap after mingling with Dalits,” she claimed in rally after rally last year.

Sirsa MP and Youth Congress president Ashok Tanwar, the Congress’ young Dalit face, has similar views: “Rahul is passionate about the need to change the lives of Dalits ... He has instructed us to organise special Dalit and tribal conferences of the Youth Congress.”

Vivek Kumar’s prediction is that this “image-projection” of Rahul may succeed for a while, but not in the long run.

The battle has just about begun, it seems.