Even as social media remains abuzz with the fake news of Yogi Adityanath, the newly appointed CM of Uttar Pradesh, cutting down reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs in private medical colleges (which never existed in the first place), what has taken the country by storm is BJP’s major upset in the UP assembly elections of 2017. Known to be the strongholds of parties like SP and BSP, BJP’s win has left many wondering if this signals the end of lower caste assertion in the state. However, it needs to be questioned if there really was a genuine politics of assertion by the oppressed in BSP or SP. Perhaps BJP’s win only exposes the limits of electoral politics, or the politics of representation in general.
As commentators have already noted, BJP has been able to use their own version of “social engineering” to woo non-Jatav Dalits and non-Jadav OBCs along with several MBCs. In fact, this is a process in motion – one that had its manifestations in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections also, when BJP was able to garner support of backward castes and Dalits who had not benefited from BSP rule. However, the story doesn’t really end there. There are indications that both BSP and SP-Congress alliance are losing support within their own cozy quarters. The BSP managed to win only two of the 84 seats that were reserved for Dalits in the state. It fared badly in most of the districts with high Dalit population.
What would explain such a colossal defeat of the “Mandal” forces against the forces of Manu? Is it merely a result of tampering of voting machines? Is it because of the family feud in SP? Or is it attributable to the fact that Mayawati had tried to ally with non-Dalits which left the Dalits fuming? Or was it because both SP and BSP failed to understand the changing nature of middle class Dalits? While all of these may have a role to play, what most analyses seem to overlook is the obvious limitation of the politics of representation, i.e. the political version of trickle-down economics, that offering party tickets to representatives of an ethnic group or community will ensure electoral success.
Without a politics that is firmly rooted in improving the material realities of the masses, identity politics will remain a hogwash that only invokes idols like Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram but with little demonstrable results. Symbolic gestures, like putting up statues are important, insofar as giving a voice to the marginalized is concerned. But “swabhiman” has little meaning if one has to go hungry or live in poverty. The problem with the idea of capturing power to bring about social change is that it leaves aside the question of engaging with the contradictions of class till too late – if not entirely. Whether some self-proclaimed Ambedkarites like it or not, it is impossible to discuss caste without also engaging with class. This is precisely what noted Dalit activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi points out when he says that both capitalism and Brahmanism have to be fought to forge a better tomorrow.
If giving tickets or promising representation is what is equated with development, then it is no surprise that many non-Jatav Dalits, who constitute 14% of the overall 25% Dalit votes in UP, have opted for BJP instead. The hegemony of this dominant discourse of party tickets as representation-hence-development is to blame for BJP’s success. It is entirely another matter and of little significance really to the struggling Dalit and other oppressed masses, that despite all its tall talk of social inclusion, the new assembly of BJP is still largely dominated by upper castes. While political representation by elites is better than no representation, it is still problematic to place too much emphasis on it. After all, why not consider the fact that the BJP chose to offer 65 tickets out of 85 reserved constituencies to non-Jatav Dalits. How is that materially any different from the politics of BSP/SP?
If we look at the track record of development under the rules of BSP, SP and BJP, we will find all three cut a sorry figure. While SP has been particularly notorious for crimes against Dalit women, the number of registered Dalit rape cases were highest during BJP’s rule in the state, between 1997 and 2002. While Mayawati and her BSP comrades may rightly point out that SP’s regime was punctuated with even greater lawlessness, it would be farfetched for BSP to claim that they have fulfilled the ambitions of the Dalits. Apart from some initiatives like the move to distribute land among landless Dalits, BSP has left the project of democratic revolution an unfinished agenda, as described by Prof. Sudha Pai. The disconnect with grassroots that has cost Mayawati and dashed Dalit hopes, is a direct outcome of the opportunistic, statist configuration of the party, which believes in a top-down model instead of social revolution from below. Prof. Badri Narayan has also described how BSP’s rule has mostly benefited a small section among Chamars and other numerically dominant castes like Dhobi, Kori, Valmiki etc. That said, other numerically strong castes like Jogi, Kanjar, Musahar, Nat, Dom and smaller ones like Kalabaaz, Khairha, Balai, Majhwar have become the “ati-Dalits” due to even greater marginalization due to unequal distribution of the pie. While Prasad et al may argue that there has been an improvement in “recognition dimension” of inequality for Dalits in UP in post-reform period, there is enough evidence to show that developmental indicators related to health, education, land holdings etc. were quite abysmal in UP during 1990’s. In fact, as Prof. Zoya Hasan has pointed out, there has been no substantial structural change like alleviation of poverty or redistributive programs under the rule of BSP.
Perhaps the Taylor-Fraser dialogue on recognition and redistribution is informative at this juncture. While Charles Taylor is of the opinion that in a multicultural society, politics of recognition is more important, Nancy Fraser suggests that neither identity nor class alone can address all problems and instead presents a dualistic model. The futility of merely portraying a pro-Dalit and anti upper-caste self-image clearly did not work out, even in electoral terms for the BSP. However, instead of increasing its mass base through interventions in the genuine day to day struggles of the Dalits, it resorted to Brahmin appeasement, to the extent of diluting the SC/ST atrocities act. It is no wonder then that merely harping on a politics of recognition without also realizing that it goes hand in hand with a politics of redistribution has made way for the rise of BJP. For an assertive politics to be truly inclusive, it cannot overlook the class dimensions within each community. As KM Panikkar points out, identity politics often represents not the interest of the whole community but only of the dominant classes within it. This is an extension of Fraser’s point that reification of identity can actually lead to mal-distribution of resources by masking the power of dominant factions within the community and increasing intra-community inequality.
Kishalaya Mukhopadhyay is pursuing Phd in Development Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi.