Growth of Dalit middle class; increasing Dalit assertion & empowerment; and de-Brahmanised Hinduisation leading to a shift of Dalits to the BJP, writes Abhinav Prakash Singh. 

One of the least discussed socio-political phenomenon since the last year is the shift of Dalits towards the BJP, a party with roots in Hindutva. Even though it is a significant political development in itself, it becomes even more important in the backdrop of the traditional ‘wisdom’ in which Dalits are considered to be antagonistic towards BJP, a party seen as championing the interests of the upper castes.

The author pointed out the emerging trends in Dalit politics before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and predicted a massive voting by Dalits for the Modi-led BJP. Moreover, this trend was further strengthened during the Maharashtra and Haryana elections where it would have been difficult for BJP to clinch victory without the Dalit votes. It has, of course, invited the usual ‘analysis’ of Dalits becoming ‘foot soldiers’ of Hindutva and the ‘Brahminical game plan’ to subvert the development of independent Dalit political consciousness.

However, we need to analyse and understand this crucial political development, which is not as unusual as it seems to a layman. Moreover, since Dalit politics emerged as an autonomous entity in the north and western India, we will confine our discussion to these regions rather than brushing the immensely diverse Dalit community with a single colour. This is also because Dalit politics remains subservient to the dominant constructs in the southern and eastern states, be it Dravidianism in Tamil Nadu or communism in Bengal or Kerala, while Dalits usually vote Congress in rest of the regions. Further, we can see that regions, where Dalits are voting for BJP, are also the areas of strong & independent Dalit assertion and we shall see that it is not a coincidence.

The dynamics leading to the shift of Dalits towards BJP falls under three categories: the growth of Dalit middle class, increasing Dalit assertion & empowerment and de-Brahmanised Hinduisation.

The emergence of a Dalit middle and neo middle class is one of the crucial socio-economic phenomena of the last six decades. The ground was built by the progressive breakdown of the caste system (even though castes themselves have remained, and their characteristic is transforming) and the constitutionally mandated affirmative action. In fact, reservation is the only policy, which has benefited Dalits in any real sense, and by reservations it is reservations in jobs and educational institutions, which is specifically meant here.

The socio-economic mobility induced by reservations was almost unthinkable up until a few decades earlier. The new generation of Dalit leadership, which emerged in the 80s, was mainly drawn from the class of government employees and officials. In fact, the BSP movement in U.P was envisioned and led by the Dalits who were beneficiaries of the reservations and were able to command real resources, substantial enough to be transformed into political capital.

The process, which worked over several decades in post-Independence India is complex but the crux lies in the fact that reservations opened doors to education for Dalits who were otherwise both denied the opportunity and lacked the capacity to access the modern education. This was a crucial factor as lacking other forms of capital & with meagre resources, education became the only escape route for Dalits from the harsh realities of the caste system.

The provision of reservations in government jobs ensured Dalits, for the first time, occupational profile different from their low-paying traditional jobs. It also meant that the some of the state power and resultant benefits rubbed onto the Dalits fortunate enough to be part of the state machinery in higher positions. And since, in a closely linked Indian society the benefits of success is not confined to the ‘individual’ alone but has spin-offs for the larger family and ‘biradaari’, the actual impact of job reservation has been far wider than what is normally acknowledged.

Reservation, in essence, played the same role of capital accumulation for Dalits, which the state power and bureaucratic-socialist system played for the forward castes in the post-Independent India.

Moreover, now the next generation of Dalits is increasingly diversifying out of government sector and into the private sector and business. This small but rapidly growing class is becoming a strong supporter of economic reforms and good governance. It has spawned a new discourse of “Dalit Capitalism” which advocates entrepreneurship and access to markets as the route to emancipation rather than old policies of reservations etc. And like others, it looks towards BJP as a business friendly, pro-growth party. It is, therefore, not surprising that almost the entire younger generation of urban Dalits is now pro-BJP in states like U.P, Gujarat, etc.

It had been so for quite some time, but this pro-BJP constituency was converted into votes for the first time due to the rise of Narendra Modi as the face of BJP. Even the Jatav youths (of Mayawati’s caste) were quite blunt on “Desh mein Modi, Pradesh mein Bahenji” i.e., Modi in the centre, Mayawati in the state!

The second dynamic is the growth of independent Dalit politics. Even though Dalit politics was slow to develop in the northern belt unlike Maharashtra and southern states, it grew rapidly from the 80s onwards. The Dalits were drawn into the political mainstream during the freedom struggle under the leadership of Gandhi-led Congress. Moreover, Dalits remained with the Congress in the post-independence India due to lack of an alternative, lack of capacity to sustain an independent politics and the tremendous intellectual hegemony and powerful imagery exercised by the Congress party. Congress also acted as guarantor of some modicum of safety and protection for Dalits, peppered with welfare policies. In fact, the breakdown of the Congress system saw a sharp increase in anti-Dalit violence in the 70s.

However, the hopes of Dalits were soon belied as hardly any visible improvement came along, and the Congress never granted them any real representation or participation in the power. Moreover, Dalits felt betrayed over the land reforms where land went to the tenants (middle castes) and not to the tillers (Dalits) as promised.

From the 80s onwards, a new generation of Dalit leaders emerged who challenged the Congress consensus and were determined to strike out on their own, most notably in U.P where a Dalit party succeed in capturing the state power.

However, the political success of Dalit politics also meant that fissures began to emerge in the Dalit camp as more and more Dalit castes were politicised and empowered. They started demanding a share in the power and questioning the dominance of the vanguard Dalit castes (usually the more numerous and resourceful ones). They started shifting to other non-Dalits parties including BJP to strike a better deal than ‘THE’ Dalit party was offering them. Moreover, on their part, the vanguard Dalit castes feel powerful enough to act independently like other forward castes or dominant OBC castes.

In short, Dalits are no longer hesitant to collaborate and work with other castes for their respective political goals and this time it is not the old Congress structure with Dalits as the mute, subservient partners. The development of independent Dalit politics did not result in ‘revolutionary uprising’ or ‘civil war’ as many eagerly awaited but instead lead to a greater convergence of interests and collaboration among Dalits and non-Dalit castes.

The third factor is the almost entirely neglected process of Hinduisation of the Dalits. By Hinduisation, we mean the growth of the consciousness of the ‘Hindu unity’ in the modern sense i.e., Hindutva and not the process of non-Hindus being drawn into the Hindu fold. In fact, Hinduism is a synthesis of indigenous tribal practices and belief systems and grew bottom-up, incorporating the numerous pagan practices of Dalits and tribal communities over millennia.

However, the distorted academic & public discourse created an impression that Hinduism is synonymous to Brahmanism (unlike the distinction, which even Ambedkar made), caste-system is a religious system and that Dalits are not Hindus. Well, a flawed analysis only leads to a flawed solution! Moreover, radical anti-caste rhetoric, which grew in the past century centred on anti-Hinduism and failed to analyse the political economy of the caste system. It was assumed that destruction of Hinduism or Dalits leaving Hindu fold would do away with the caste problem, something that never happened even for those who converted to Islam and Christianity centuries ago.

Therefore, the anti-Hinduism movements were launched, and the overall tone of the Dalit discourse was of attacking Hinduism, deconstructing myths, ridiculing Brahmins and simple refusal to accept the jati-varna system or any justification thereof. The ‘Gotra’ & ‘Puranic’ identity, existing or which was being given by Hindu revivalist movements, were rejected. Instead, attempts were made by Dalit castes to re-write the history with the specific aim of finding & resurrecting respective historical Dalit personalities as the focal point of Dalit identity and dignity. Buddhism was promoted as well but failed to find serious takers outside Mahars of Maharashtra.

Most of the Dalits happily remained attached to their Hindu traditions, rituals and festivals. What happened instead was the decline of ritual power & legitimacy of the upper castes, especially Brahmins. In truth, resentment has always been more against the ‘existing’ caste-system, discrimination and caste inequalities rather than against mythological constructs and ancient scriptures.

This, coupled with the shift in the relative power due to the processes discussed above, meant that the more and more Dalits were moving outside the Brahminical narratives of identity, social order and creating their own identities and self-image unlike the one where even their caste name was a term of abuse in the imagination of non-Dalits. Moreover, for the section of Dalits which benefited from reservations, rising wealth, and opportunities in the post-reform period, caste discrimination is increasingly not the dominant reality of the everyday life. This has reduced the caste antagonism and consequently the space of anti-Hinduism rhetoric.

So, the anti-Hinduism propaganda had an effect but an effect, which was quite opposite to what was intended. It enabled Dalits to reject the upper-caste supremacy and instead re-imagine and re-create their own space within the Hindu fold. Perhaps the best example would be of many Dalits mentioning their ‘vansa’/clan name or sub-caste during Sankalpa (where one is supposed to speak aloud his name and lineage) while performing religious rituals or puja in temples instead of Gotra (male lineage from mostly Brahmin ancient Rishis) and being accepted as such by the mostly Brahmin priests.

Beyond the academic ‘research’ on Dalit issues and rhetorical pamphleteering, what was happening for the past several decades was the de-Brahmanised Hinduisation of Dalits. It was complemented by the process of Sanskritization due to works done by several Hindu & Hindutva organisations like opening of temples to Dalits, imparting scriptural knowledge, performing yagna and other sanskara for Dalits, training Dalit priests, anti-caste advocacy etc. These two processes together fostered a strong sense of Hinduness and Hindu unity. Anyway, an important strain even in the radical Dalit rhetoric is that upper castes failed to protect India from Islamic and Western imperialism unlike the era of ‘Bahujans rule’ like Mauryans, etc. Far from the seditious views reflected in activist-talk and academia, Dalit narrative always had a strong nationalist trend, which holds that India can be strong and free only when power is the hands of the people and not monopolised by miniscule upper castes.

The shift towards BJP is the result of the combined effect of these factors.

It is often asserted that BJP is an upper caste party and Dalits in BJP is an oxymoron. However, this construct is detached from reality because more often than not, Dalits & upper castes have been in a political alliance in post-independence India. Firstly under the Congress hegemony, then as BSP-BJP alliance, which was followed by Dalit-Brahmin alliance within BSP and now increasingly under the BJP. However, the nature of the alliance has been changing over time.

Under Congress, it was more of a system of patronage extended to Dalits but it transformed into a mutual alliance as BSP-BJP allied to guard against the aggressive & often violent assertion by dominant OBC castes. Then we had the spectacular feat of social engineering by Mayawati in the form of Dalit-Brahmin ‘bhaichara’ (brotherhood) under the aegis of BSP. It is important to note that it was presented not as a political alliance but as a ‘social coalition’ of Dalits and Brahmins. The strategy paid rich dividends to BSP. Moreover, now the same is being repeated under the BJP umbrella.

by Dalits where they are making their own political choices and are confident enough to work with full spectrum of socio-political formations. However,

and reduced to the footnote as ‘foot soldiers’ as per the mainstream narrative.

due to the rapid radicalisation of Muslim youth under the influence of Wahhabism/Salafism. Apart from the faux construct of Dalits and upper caste being permanent political foes, Dalit-Muslim unity is another imaginary construct. In fact, Dalits have always been the first and worst victim of riots and Islamic violence across the country. We have recently seen the religious persecution of Dalits by Muslims in Kanth, repeated rioting against Dalits in West Bengal, Trilokpuri in Delhi, religious persecution of Dalits in Pakistan and Bangladesh, etc.

Moreover, in all these cases Dalits are abandoned to the rampaging mob to save ‘secularism’. It is astonishing to note that the same people, who assert day in and day out that Dalits are ‘not’ Hindus, immediately dump the Dalits in case of Dalit-Muslim clash by dubbing Dalits as ‘majoritarian Hindu fascists’ or the ‘foot soldiers’. It shows nothing but the deeply entrenched casteism and the disdain towards Dalits in the dominant section of the media and academia.

This too has resulted in a shift of Dalits towards BJP, which is seen more as a Hindu party than an upper caste party. Moreover, in any case, many of the smaller Dalit castes never abandoned BJP since the Ram Janambhumi movement, not even for BSP. It is nothing but a failure or reluctance of BJP to nurture leadership from these castes, thus inviting the usual suspicion from other better placed Dalit castes.

The saffron shift among Dalits is unmistakable but what is still not clear is that whether this would continue to benefit BJP electorally, or is it a temporary phenomenon? Upcoming coming Bihar and U.P elections hold to key to this question. And much will depend on how much real participation and power BJP is willing to vest in the hands of Dalits within the party and the government.

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