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Congress, Dalits And Elections

By Gail Omvedt

The Hindu
12 June, 2003

A dalit international conference at Vancouver, a Congress conclave of Chief Ministers in Srinagar: have they anything in common? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. After the Srinagar conclave finished without a mention of the Bhopal Declaration, the two seem to be light-years away rather than a few thousand miles.

Over a year and a half ago, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, organised a special conference at Bhopal in January 2002 to adopt a new "Dalit Agenda for the 21st Century", the first significant governmental response to the new Dalit consciousness emerging after Durban. And the Bhopal Declaration, a Dalit-drafted document adopted by the 250 delegates and nearly ten times that many Madhya Pradesh participants, and accepted without change by the Chief Minister, was a significant step forward in many respects. Not only did it include the principle of land ownership for every Dalit family, but in putting forward the theme of "diversity" — the right of every Dalit to a fair share in resources, power and wealth — it began the process of assuring "affirmative action" in non-governmental fields, what Dalits are calling "reservation in the private sector." As a first step, the Madhya Pradesh Government has begun awarding 30 per cent of all its contracts to Dalit (that is, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe) contractors, and is taking up other innovative measures such as providing scholarships for Ph.D. study in the United States. Land is also being given in many areas, often over caste-Hindu protests.

However, while the then President, K. R. Narayanan, praised the programme, the Congress high command remained silent. So did the Srinagar conclave. It vociferously proclaimed its secularism, condemning what are seen as policies of "soft Hindutva" while simultaneously denying that these existed. (This itself had an anti-Digvijay Singh tone since the press publicity to his anti-cow slaughter and other measures has assured that the policy is identified with him). It praised the Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, for his bold arrest of the VHP leader, Praveen Togadia. It sought to relieve fears about liberalisation policies among the poor by promising to ensure employment opportunities. It promised reservation "for the poor among the upper castes". And, it ratified alliances with other parties, most notably with the Samajwadi Party and with Ajit Singh in Uttar Pradesh in an effort to check the power of Mayawati and the BJP.

It is not surprising, then, that Dalits should conclude that the Congress, as a political party, has nothing new to offer them. This has already been the opinion of the most militant and conscious section among them — those who support parties such as the BSP, those influenced by Dr. Ambedkar's life-long struggle with Gandhi and his Congress. Young educated Dalits now will say, "Congress is the most dangerous enemy," and when asked about BJP, "Oh, we can handle them!" The Congress, in this view, has been dangerous because it looks seductively progressive without in reality being so; its reforms have only resulted from an effort to check Ambedkar. As the party of Gandhi the Congress, they argue, has always sought simply to hold Dalits in a Brahman-dominated Hinduism, and as the party of Nehru, it took a mechanical-leftist perspective avoiding caste — while all the time doing nothing in real terms. This has led to educated and conscious Dalits being relatively undisturbed about Ms. Mayawati's understanding with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, these characteristics seemed to have been reiterated in the Srinagar conclave. The look towards alliance is made concrete in the context of leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh who represent castes that have emerged as almost the direct enemies of Dalits and with the mockery of an extension of reservation to the "poor" among upper castes.

Without any real programmes identified as anti-caste, a secular policy is empty. Few Dalits and anti-caste radicals would be happy with a programme opposing cow slaughter, because its overtones of brahmanic orthodoxy affect not only Muslims but Dalits who have been identified with this in the past and even today. Yet the positive steps taken by the Madhya Pradesh Government to empower low castes far outweigh the posturing of Mr. Digvijay Singh as a "sanatani Hindu". What is disturbing about Congress policy is its failure to recognise the significance of real, material measures for empowerment. Promising employment is empty because it fails to specify how the economy can grow to provide employment, while reservation for the forward caste poor is a mockery because these poor never face the issues of caste discrimination and humiliation that equally poor, and bright boys and girls from Dalits and OBCs face. The Congress, as a whole, has totally failed to address the issue of caste discrimination in any new and significant form.

So what should Dalits and their sympathisers do? A political policy of anti-Congressism alone is empty; for one thing, whether or not the Congress is the "most dangerous" enemy, a strategy connected with a long-term programme of social transformation is needed. The BSP and the BJP are "natural" allies in a purely opportunistic sense, since the social groups they easily appeal to stand at opposite ends of the caste hierarchy. However, the danger is that an alliance (or understanding) with the BJP threatens to turn parties like the BSP into simply followers, increasing Hindutva power nationally while giving Dalits only partial access to power. Any "understanding" with the BJP can be justified at most on a short-term, tactical basis, not as part of a long-term programmatic strategy. The problem with the BSP so far has been that it lacks a political programme aside from that of empowerment, so that it fails to stand for much to the general public of India. It has become too much identified with opportunistic alliances, in spite of the real appeal that Ms. Mayawati has as a daring and assertive woman — and not only a Dalit — political leader.

At the same time there is clearly a need to bring pressure even on those parties — the Left, the Congress — which have in the past been identified with the poor and Dalit masses of India. The Congress has been a broadly left-of-centre political party, while the BJP may be evolving into a broadly right-of-centre one. In this sense, it would be Congress and the Left parties that would be a "natural" ally for Dalits and their political forces — if pressure can be exerted on these parties to transform their policies. But this is possible only by a clear threat of withdrawal of support. The option for Dalits and other anti-caste radicals in the upcoming elections, then, seem clear: support those parties which support their cause. At present, this means supporting the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, and opposing it elsewhere so long as there is a general refusal to adopt the Bhopal Declaration policies.

As for the Congress, its history is as the party that fought for independence, the party of Gandhi and Nehru. But part of this has included a forward caste domination in the leadership, an unwillingness to admit the horrors of caste hierarchy and atrocities while upholding an oversimplified class-oriented statist leftism, and an identification with Brahmanic Hindu symbolism. Unless this part of the heritage is overcome and Congress becomes also the party of Ambedkar and Phule, it will never succeed in winning back its hold among the Dalits of the country.