Dalits are usually taken to be a homogeneous category that includes all the scheduled castes, but the ground reality in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and other states in north India is that there is plenty of space for fragmentation because of the different levels of their politicization.
Many Dalit castes such as Dhobi, Pasi and Bhangi, for example, rarely use the word Dalit to define themselves because their individual caste identities are more significant for them. While the democratic processes of the country bring all the lower castes together under one homogeneous category, Dalits also divide themselves along caste lines as and when it suits their purpose. The political parties also precipitate this process to win Dalit votes.
This was clearly shown in the 15th general election as the voting pattern of the Dalits in all north Indian states where Dalit politics is practised differed vastly. In Bihar, the success of Nitish Kumar, the leader of the Janata Dal (United) who is heading the state government with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows his policy of mobilizing the Mahadalits, as he calls the more marginalized Dalit castes such as Nat, Dhobi and Mushahar, by giving them special government support has paid dividends as they have shifted to him from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Left parties which were their earlier patrons. In addition, the process of communalization of Dalits at the grass roots by the Hindutva forces, or the Hindu way, also seems to be succeeding as shown by the victory of the BJP in several places. Thus, the results break the myth that the Dalits of Bihar prefer to go with radical emancipatory forces rather than with rightist forces.
In the case of Uttar Pradesh, the sarvajan politics of chief minister Mayawati to bring the Brahmin and Dalit votes together is yet to mature, though it seems to be working to some extent, as seen by a slight increase in the number of seats won by her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). However, the success of the Congress and an increase in the BJP’s seat tally in UP is a warning for Mayawati that the Dalits cannot be taken for granted. Although the success of the Congress might not rest only on Dalit votes, as the Muslims too have voted for it, Mayawati should take this as a sign that the card of identity politics she was playing in this state is losing its importance.
In states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, although the BSP has achieved some success, the Dalits are yet to emerge as as a powerful political voice.
In Maharashtra, the results show that the Dalits have not been able to develop a separate political space. The success of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party implies that the Dalits are divided between these parties. Similar is the case in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where no separate Dalit party or BSP has been electorally successful.
The election results show that there is a big question mark on Mayawati being a potential prime ministerial candidate, a role that will require her to attract a major percentage of combined Dalit votes in addition to other castes. The diminished importance of regional parties and the rise of the national parties in these elections is also a sign that smaller parties such as the BSP need to develop more aggressive electoral strategies.
Badri Narayan is senior faculty member at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
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