Indian members of the Dalit caste community join attend a protest rally against an attack on Dalit caste members in the Gujarat town of Una, in Ahmedabad on July 31, 2016. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The simmering Dalit unrest and other agitations in the country are set to rewire political alignments.

    Dalits and Muslims – wooed constantly by “secular” parties – feel shortchanged by their leaders and may opt to come together.

    The result could be the lack of a single-party majority in the general elections for many years to come.

India’s social and political cauldron is coming to a boil once again. In the coming years, and possibly before the next national elections, political alignments and community combinations will undergo another rejig, driven this time as much by aspirational pressures from below as electoral arithmetic calculated from above.

From the Patidar agitation to the Dalit upsurge over the Una beatings by cow vigilantes, Gujarat is one flashpoint. But the reality is that several communities and caste groups in many states are in turmoil, making one demand or the other, such as job reservations (Jat, Gujjars, Kapus), and Hindu and Muslim parties trying to build their own vote banks.

The Uttar Pradesh elections may provide the trigger, but the fuse is being lit by social pressures from the bottom of the pyramid, with Muslims and Dalits in acute ferment.

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Various Dalit groups are reported to be planning a massive protest in Delhi ahead of the winter session of Parliament, and one trajectory of this political buildup will be an alignment with Muslim groups in some states. While Muslim and Dalit interests do not always converge, one area where they do converge is in wanting a direct share of power.

Thus far, all political alignments, whether led by the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Communists, or various regional parties, have been led by the upper castes or other backward classes (OBCs), with Dalits and Muslims being “appeased” to buy their votes. While Mayawati did manage to create a Dalit vote bank in Uttar Pradesh, she could come to power in the state only by inverting the Congress alignment of castes – with Dalits on top, supported by Brahmins, and a smattering of Muslims thrown in.

While Mayawati has been the exception to the rule, her ambit of influence has been limited to Uttar Pradesh, and even here the BJP is seen as a likely threat to her Dalit vote bank.

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The Congress held a single-party majority for long purely because the disempowered sought economic largesse and not a share of power. Now they do even the latter. The BJP’s single-party majority in 2014 may thus be an aberration unless the party itself morphs into a truly representative one with major Dalit faces at the top. Cow vigilantism will not help it get there unless Dalits are a part of it.

The reason why this time it may be different is this: the upsurge is not driven by the traditional parties but the masses. The Dalit anger over cow vigilantism and other instances of ill-treatment of their brethren by caste groups has caught even Mayawati by surprise, and consternation in the BJP, which has so far tried to woo Dalits by aligning with various Dalit parties and leaders, including Ram Vilas Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi, and Ramdas Athavale.

Traditional leaders have been blindsided by this sudden upsurge in Dalit sentiment as it signals an awakening from below: the aam Dalit has realised that the big national and regional parties end up doing deals that benefit their leaders but not the masses. Till recently, the Dalit at the bottom of the pyramid was happy enough to let the Mayawatis rule in order to share a sense of pride and participation, but they now know that they have been shortchanged by their own leaders.

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On the other hand, various Muslim parties have also come to the same realisation. In the past, assorted mullahs and imams did deals with the Congress and “secular” regional parties in the states, but beyond some measure of protection, they got no share of power. This is why the last 10 years have seen the rise of Muslim parties in Assam (AUDF, led by Badruddin Ajmal) and Andhra Pradesh (MIM, led by Asaduddin Owaisi). Other more nascent Muslim parties are yet to make an impact, but they are bound to make their presence felt in due course. If Uttar Pradesh is broken up, the western part is most likely to develop a full-fledged Muslim party and get a Muslim Chief Minister. In more than a hundred Uttar Pradesh towns, Muslims form a majority.

Like Dalits, Muslims feel let down by the “secular” parties for swallowing their vote and delivering nothing tangible in terms of power or economic social benefits.

It is thus logical for disempowered Dalits and Muslims to discover their own power of agency and seek a direct share of power. This is why Indian politics is going to be turned upside down over the next few years. It means both Dalits and Muslims may, slowly, start abandoning the main national and regional parties unless they get a direct share in power. If Lalu Prasad wants the Muslim vote, he will have to give them powerful ministries and specific assurances. Yadav power will be curtailed. Ditto in Uttar Pradesh.

A Dalit-Muslim combination will have several consequences, though actual electoral impact may be some time away. It may have a huge impact in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the numbers point to a possible route to power. In multi-cornered electoral contests, you only need 30-35 percent of the vote to gain a majority, and Dalits and Muslims combined get there.

It is this “30 percent is enough to win” logic that brought Yadavs and Muslims in Mulayam Singh’s social compact; the Yadav, Muslim, Kurmi and Mahadalit combo brought Nitish Kumar back to power last year. In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims make up around 18 percent, and OBCs 30 percent, with Yadavs being around a third of OBCs. In Bihar, Muslims are about 17 percent and Yadavs 14 percent, with Mahadalits adding up to around 15-16 percent.

Here’s the takeout: a Dalit coalition has good reason to combine with a Muslim group and vice versa in order to be a principal player in the power equation. The current Dalit leadership missed this churn from the bottom, but will not lose time in seeking ownership of the movement if it gains traction. This explains why Mayawati has been roaring like a tigress, and the Paswans have been mewing, wondering if association with the BJP is the kiss of death. The only thing keeping them in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is the short-term prospect of staying in power and Narendra Modi’s own popularity, which is not worth sacrificing yet. But things will change closer to 2019.

If a Dalit-Muslim combination actually comes to power, or comes close to power, in any state, it will have its own indirect consequences. For example, if Muslims in Uttar Pradesh abandon the Samajwadi Party and Dalits do a deal with them, it will lead to realignments in the Hindu groups, with upper castes and OBCs rethinking their antagonisms.

However, other alignments may also take shape beyond the Dalit-Muslim combination, which is unlikely to be national in character.

In Kerala, the rise of jihadi culture among Muslims could force the BJP, which is trying to build a Hindu vote bank with Nairs and Ezhavas, to build a new coalition with Christian parties. This is the only way for the BJP to break the LDF-UDF dominance in the state. The exit of one Christian group, the KM Mani group, from the UDF is one signal that things may change. The Ezhava vote of the LDF is in danger of splitting, with the BJP making a determined pitch for it.

In Tamil Nadu, the various OBC castes are in ferment, with the Vanniyars breaking with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) front. Once J Jayalalithaa leaves the scene, many other communities, including the Gounders and Thevars, will look for another party umbrella, for Jaya has no successor. M Karunanidhi is also in exit mode, given his age, and the DMK could split between his two sons, MK Stalin and MK Azhagiri. The BJP could conceivably create a new majority combo once the principal players are gone.

In Gujarat itself, one could see a change in government in 2017 if the new Chief Minister is unable to mend the party’s rift with the Patidars and Dalits, let alone other groups.

Where castes and Dalits are not a major factor, one is likely to see more Hindu vote consolidation, as we saw in Assam. It could happen in Bengal too, but the BJP still hasn’t found the right leader to lead this hidden vote bank.

India’s social ferment is going to force a political churn, and all parties need to take note, not least Narendra Modi, who wants to return to power in 2019. His earlier plans may need a rework.

The chances are, 2014 may have thrown up the last single-party majority for the foreseeable future.

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