I am a dalit, who are you?

Political Diary

By Poonam I Kaushish
The caste genie unleashed by our polity nearly three decades ago has bared its poisonous fangs once again in UP and Bihar threatening to consume the States and have ramifications for the BJP at the Centre. Already it has reignited the flames of hatred among Dalits and Thakurs in the former and Upper castes vs Dalit in the latter, whereby casteism is the cause celebre this week. No matter it gives further impetus and widens the caste divide. Who cares?
Clearly, in the Kafkaesque world where caste vs caste fight and decide one’s fate no Party wants to jeopordise caste vote banks which have become the most luscious mistress to be measured through the prism of power glass politics. Wherein, the fight for getting the upper hand and votes has been reduced to politics of optics and perception, underscores present reality and exposes the socio-political undercurrents at play.
Take UP. The rape of 19-year old Dalit girl by four Thakur boys in Hathras has pitted the two castes against each other. Caught in the crosshairs is Chief Minister ‘Thakur’ Yogi Adityanath and the BJP. Adding to the dichotomy both the Thakurs and Dalits constitute 20% of the population. In the 2017 State election the upper castes representation jumped from 32.7% in 2012 to 44.4%.
Undeniably, under Yogi, the State with its history of violent caste-based fault lines, has witnessed a spike in attacks on Dalits. Be it Gorakhpur, Saharanpur, Jaunpur, Agra, Ayodhya etc. Primarily because when Thakurs flex their muscle and Dalits fight for their rights, violence against them increases. Alongside, the zamindars who are mosly Thakurs own large land banks further oppress Dalits.
With the Supreme Court dubbing Hathras “horrible, it has snowballed into a full-blown controversy with the BJP worried over how it should balance the Dalit-Thakur implosion and its political fallout countrywide with Bihar going to polls later this month. Threatening to strike at the all-castes edifice assiduously built by Modi’s outreach to the oppressed community resulting in BJP’s stupendous victory in UP in 2017.
Moreso, as since assuming power, Yogi has nominated Thakurs in various institutional domains, zilla parishads, civil servants, SHO nominations etc. Consequently, a perception of ‘Thakurvad’ across the Hindi belt has fuelled resentment among the non-upper-caste allies of the BJP and among pro-BJP Brahmins in general.
The infamous ‘shoe incident’ in which a BJP Brahmin MP clashed with a BJP Thakur MLA last March was seen as an act of cathartic retribution by Brahmins. This blatant favouritism of the BJP towards traditional elites goes directly against its promise to do away with the kind of caste-based preferentialism usually associated with its regional opponents.
Clearly, contradicting the BJP’s claim it has become an inclusive social rainbow platform. In the 2017 UP Assembly, the Party distributed half of its tickets to upper-caste candidates (48.2%) against 31.2% to OBC and Jat candidates with the Dalits-non-Jatavs receiving token representation.
The episode has upped Congress’s limp sails and if it succeeds in recovering some of its lost ground among Dalits, the BJP would be in a quandary since the community was among its latest acquisitions. To lose them could be a disaster for the Saffron camp not only in UP but pan India.
In Bihar even as Chief Minister and JD(U) Chief Nitish Kumar emerges as a leader with no challenger, with ally BJP alienating Dalits on Hathras rape and RJDs friend-turned-foe ‘Bade Bhai’ Lalu Yadav politically a spent force and in jail, it is not going to be a cakewalk for him as he has lost some of his popularity among the masses thanks to his Covid mismanagement and migrant issue.
Besides, his plank of sushashan has mislaid its sheen because development has come to a standstill and corruption charges are snapping at his heels. Like the Srijan scam, involving a fraudulent withdrawal of over Rs 1,500 crore from the Bhagalpur treasury now being investigated by the CBI.
Yet, despite Nitish not having a formidable caste base of his own, he has carved out a solid, non-Yadav OBC and EBC constituency for himself. The caste break up: Upper castes 17% of which Brahmin are 5.7% and Rajput 5.2%, Dalits including Mahadalits stand at 16% and Yadav 14.4%. A sizeable section of upper castes who hoot for the BJP will go along with JD(U). In the 2015 polls 54% of the BJP MLAs belonged to upper caste, against 21% in the overall Assembly.
Alongside, the death of Ram Vilas Paswan who was the quintessential Dalit face of the BJP-led NDA at the Centre and State has not only queered the pitch, opened the race in the forthcoming poll matrix but also introduced an element of uncertainty after his LJP led by son and heir Chirag has decided to fight independently, thereby making things trickier for the BJP and JD(U).
Till yesterday both saw the RJD-Congress-Left Opposition Mahagathbandhan as their main (non) challenger in the polls what with many of its regional allies quitting. Today, Nitish is wary of any impact Paswan’s death will have on his Party’s fortune which was already in the line of LJP’s fire over many issues. Also post Paswan’s death, the JD(U) is handicapped that it will not be able to attack the LJP strongly.
True, Chirag who failed in Bollywood does not have any young rival Dalit leader with State-wide visibility barring Mahadalit Nitish and could trigger sympathy post his father’s death yet it remains to be seen how LJP’s core Dalit voters relate to him and whether he can muster his father’s grassroot appeal among the masses to make a dent. Either way, the LP Chief will be a thorn in Nitish’s flesh even post Assembly polls.
The BJP is ostensibly playing a balancing act and role of a ‘firefighter’ between its two allies, JD(U) in the State and both JD(U) and LJP as part of the NDA at the Centre. But rumour has it that it is propping up Chirag who is an ardent pro-Modi voice, from behind the scenes, so that he keeps the heat up on the Bihar Chief Minister to keep him in check and ensure that he does not get strong enough to break away from the NDA, as it did in 2013. When queried, senior BJP leaders refuse to openly speak on the Chirag-Nitish tussle except parroting “Nitish will be the combine’s Chief Ministerial candidate.”
This will be the first election where RJD Chief Lalu Yadav will be missing. Sitting in jail he reminisces, “I am the original secularist, baaki sab nautanki hai.” Recall, Lalu inverted Bihar’s caste pyramid, creating a new power structure that broke the stranglehold of the Brahmin-Bhumihar-Kayastha leadership. The State’s 16% Yadavs were supported by an 18% Muslim vote, making MY an almost unbeatable combination. Will his political heir and son Tejashvi carry the family mantle to be counted remains to be seen?
In a milieu where caste has cast a long shadow, the tragedy is that our leaders refuse to see the Frankenstein they have unleashed. Woefully, our polity is unwilling to learn from history. The past tells us that all clashes in India have been based on caste. From Bihar’s Thakur-Dalit violence in Belchi 1976, Punjab’s Jat-Sikh insurgency 1980-1990’s and Kashmir’s two-decades of continuing Hindus-Pandits ethnic cleansing by pro-Pak militants.
Clearly, if political consciousness terminates at the caste level, divisive caste combinations will continue to dominate politics. True, it will be suicidal not to take cognizance of the backward castes new found political aspirations. At the same time, it is equally dangerous to indulge in politics of brinkmanship and political power games based on caste considerations.
Clearly, our leaders are either unable or unwilling to break out of the caste mould. In the long run, this is bound to increase dissatisfaction all around. By making noises and finding a scapegoat, our polity runs the risk of changing major political alignments on caste lines. Time now for our petty power-at-all cost polity to think beyond vote-bank politics and look at the long-term implications. Which, if not arrested, could well boomerang on them and spell danger to our democracy. What gives? —— INFA