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Deciphering the 'Dalit vote bank'

Mayank Mishra 

Sudha Pai
Oxford University Press

201 pages; Rs 275

Is there anything called a vote bank? In the age of opinion polls, Dalits are understood to be vote banks that are likely to support a certain political formation in different states. Is this the case? Not quite if you consider two recent examples: the 2007 and 2012 Assembly elections in Although the Dalits voted en masse for the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2007 and ensured a landslide victory for the party in the state, the desertion by the same group - or at least a section of it - brought heavy electoral reverses for the party in 2012. In fact, of the 89 reserved constituencies in the state, the managed to win 61 in 2007. But the tally fell to a low of 15 five years later.

What explains such wild swings? Do castes or a combination of them vote in a predictable manner? Why does a party that is perceived to be Dalit-oriented, like the BSP, perform well in but fail to make its presence felt in neighbouring Bihar or Madhya Pradesh? These and similar questions have been brilliantly dealt with in this short book under review. Written by a renowned political scientist, the book examines three broad trends of assertion: grass-roots movements, the Dalits' foray into electoral politics and movements led by a small group of the Dalit middle class. All three strands have points of convergence and divergence occasioned by socio-economic and regional factors. "The existence of three strands has arguably strengthened the Dalit movement as it has been able to respond to different types of challenges faced by the Dalits in different situations: at the grass roots in everyday village life, in electoral politics, and, more recently, the challenge of liberalisation, which has introduced marked changes in the economy," the author argues.

Grass-roots movements had had their origins in the colonial period and were more pronounced in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. They were broadly guided by three sets of ideologies: Gandhian, Ambedkarite and Dravidian. used the word "harijan" (children of God) for the Dalits, which pretty much sums up his approach to the issue (incidentally, the word "harijan" was declared unconstitutional through an executive order by the government in 1991). Gandhi's was a reformist approach advocating status quo by glorifying the menial work that the Dalits did. He was opposed to the idea of untouchability and supported welfare schemes meant for the depressed classes. In the 1930s, the Congress government in the United Provinces (now UP) "established a Harijan Sewak Sangh and set aside Rs 3 lakh annually in the provincial budget for the education of the depressed classes". The Congress government in subsequent years pursued this policy of positive discrimination to improve socio-economic conditions of the Dalits.

Radical elements, including B R Ambedkar, in the Dalit movement were never quite comfortable with Gandhian principles and they viewed Brahminism and the pollution/purity-based hierarchical varna system as enemy number one. They, therefore, advocated doing away with the altogether, even if that meant embracing a new religion. In fact, Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in the fifties. The core of Ambedkar's ideology was "educate, agitate and organise". founder took this ideology forward and advocated that "the new social order can be achieved by using the state power 'from above' for social engineering".

The is the only example of the Dalits' successful foray into electoral politics. Incidentally, the party has increased its vote share in all Lok Sabha elections since 1989. The author's take is that Dalit parties have become strong wherever the Congress has faced decline. While it explains the rise and rise of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, it does not quite explain the non-existence of a significant Dalit party in neighbouring Bihar. We will have to look at other factors to understand this. The BSP, in its initial days, made considerable progress in western Uttar Pradesh, which benefited from the green revolution. The green revolution areas saw changes in agrarian relations at grass-roots level. Landless labour, many of them from the Dalit community, also benefited from this. The improvement in economic conditions made them conscious of their rights as citizens of this country. Bihar, however, has remained untouched by something like this till recently.

Divisions within the community have also hindered the rise of Dalit politics. "Apart from UP, where a single party has been able to unite large sections of the Dalits, the hope that politics would be a unifying force has been belied," argues the author. Is that why the Dalits are not courted as vigorously as other large communities are before elections?

This book is a seminal contribution to understanding the Dalit question in the country. The chapter on middle-class assertion argues that a whole new approach is required to bring the Dalits into the new economy's mainstream. That certainly puts the demand for reservation in the private sector into perspective.

First Published: Wed, April 23 2014. 21:25 IST