Securing largely upper caste-OBC alliances has propelled the BJP to great heights and has also impacted Dalit politics
Political alignments in Bihar for the forthcoming elections offer a peek into the various ways the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constructs its electoral building blocks. Taking into consideration the specificities of each State, the NDA has been able to secure the votes of the upper castes as well as large sections of non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs), especially in large parts of north and central India. And due to its successes, prominent Dalit leaders are either aligning with it or going soft on it.
Models in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
In Bihar, the Hindutva discourse is still not sufficient for the BJP to win votes, unlike in, say, Uttar Pradesh. If alliance-building in Bihar fails, the BJP also fails. This was seen in 2015 when Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) joined hands and defeated the BJP. The BJP’s model in Bihar is to build a strong alliance, where it is able to secure the support of many upper castes, Mr. Kumar is able to mobilise the Kurmis and other non-Yadav OBCs, and Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan, a significant section of Dalits (the Dusadhs). In 2015, a coalition of the JD(U), the RJD and other parties successfully defeated the BJP. This time is different as the JD(U) walked out of that coalition in 2017.
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Political developments in U.P. point to a different template. In U.P., unlike in Bihar, the BJP could fight back successfully against an attempted Dalit-OBC-Muslim alliance by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Following that defeat, BSP chief Mayawati broke her alliance with the SP. Since then, she has been soft on the Centre. She supported the Centre’s move on Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and also credited the Supreme Court for paving the way for construction of the Ram Mandir.
How does one understand the BJP’s continued success in U.P.? Since the 1990s, the general sense was that caste combines could always defeat the ideology of Hindutva in U.P., as in Bihar. The reasoning was that caste is an expression of divergences, and if subaltern castes made common cause against ‘Brahmanical’ Hindutva, evoking the discourse of Bahujan (the majority), they would win.
In 1993, the SP and the BSP defeated the BJP soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on the strength of the Bahujan discourse. However, that alliance came apart within two years. When the two parties came together again in 2019, the BJP defeated them on its own, securing the support of the upper castes and large sections of the OBCs and thus creating a new Bahujan, as it were. The non-Yadav OBCs felt that the Yadavs were reaping the fruits of social justice and wanted to vote for the BJP. The BJP seems to no longer need alliances in the State.
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In U.P., the BJP portrays the Muslims primarily, and then the Yadavs, as the ‘other’. In Haryana, the Jats, who are the dominant caste, are projected as the ‘other’. In Maharashtra, the Marathas are the ‘other’. The BJP is thus able to attract many upper castes, OBCs and even some Dalits.
Impact on Dalit politics
These models of largely upper caste-OBC alliances have propelled the BJP to great heights. They have also impacted Dalit politics. A prime driver of Dalit politics since the 1980s was the need for greater representation. Power, it was believed, was crucial for Dalit uplift as Dalits lacked the resources to be able to rise without representation.
The sudden widening of the BJP’s social base under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has convinced established Dalit leaders that the BJP is here to stay. They believe that transacting with the party is now a necessity. In Bihar, Mr. Paswan has supported the BJP for some years now. Jitan Ram Manjhi, a symbol of non-Dusadh Dalit politics, also supports the party. In U.P., Ms. Mayawati has softened her approach towards the BJP. In 2019, Ramdas Athawale told Parliament that he supported the BJP as he had seen which way the wind was blowing. The message is thus clear: unless there is a serious challenge to the BJP at the Centre, Dalit leaders have to be open to supporting the BJP on many issues.
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The belief that a Dalit-Muslim alliance can defeat the BJP is a romantic one held by some liberals. The fact is that prominent Dalit faces like Mr. Paswan are with the NDA today. And strident Dalit critics of the regime like Chandrashekhar Azad are electorally untested.
Vikas Pathak teaches at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai