RIVAL ARMIES OF BHIM
Most social movements of the marginalised take the electoral route after gaining some popular acceptance. While this transition is made to seize power and get justice, party politics also robs social movements of their radicalism, as success in electoral politics demands that competing castes, communities and ideologies be accommodated.
The Bhim Army of Chandrashekhar Azad may be at such a crossroads, deciding whether to take the electoral leap or continue as social radicals. Azad has a formidable ‘opponent’ in Mayawati and the BSP. Like Azad now, Mayawati too had raised the hackles of caste-Hindus in the 1980s with her fiery speeches against Manuwad. Azad is critical of Mayawati’s Sarvajan politics and wants the focus back on the Bahujan. He is aware, however, of Mayawati’s stature among India’s marginalised, and knows it’s not yet time for the political leap. He must, therefore, publicly defer to ‘Bua’ (aunt) Mayawati.
Political analysts and adversaries keep writing off Mayawati, but her BSP continues to be a national entity. Nor is she a stranger to challenges from within the Ambedkarite universe, but she has always tamed competition from within, and kept her party a coherent and dominant force in Ambedkarite politics nationally.
However, to sense a disconnect between Mayawati and the younger generation of Ambedkarite leaders is not a misplaced idea. In fact, Azad’s release on September 14, just a day before Mayawati moved back to Lucknow to start preparing in earnest for the 2019 elections, could be a strategy to confuse her cadre and committed supporters. His release could also help the Congress regain a toehold in western Uttar Pradesh through a Dalit-Muslim alignment—Imran Masood, state Congress vice president, has been in constant touch with Azad, who also acknowledged his support on release from jail.
The BSP’s political rivals—both the BJP and the Congress—see opportunity in new leaders like Jignesh Mevani and Azad. Some commentators have even built up Mevani as the next Kanshi Ram. While Azad consolidates his space in Ambedkarite politics from below, Mevani is more of an airdropped leader into this realm, who began his political innings by critiquing the ‘identity politics’ of Ambedkar,
Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.
In the December 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, the Congress may have hoped to neutralise the marginal influence of the BSP by supporting Jignesh Mevani, but it found out, to its cost, that an alliance with the BSP might have served better. At this point in our national politics, when the opposition parties are struggling to find a convincing vocabulary to take on the BJP’s dominance, Mayawati is also looking for an opportunity to shore up her own standing. True to her political guru’s strategies, she is looking for a majboor sarkar (a weak government), which would give the marginalised groups greater purchase.
The BJP too is wooing the marginalised castes. As it tries to reinvent Hinduism as an inclusive civil religion that promises development and representation of all (except Muslims), the Congress is trying to lay its own claim on Hinduism—and nationalism. Rhetoric aside, the BJP’s inclusive Hinduism has so far mainly translated into increased violence against Dalits in BJPruled states. Doubts have also been expressed on the need for protective instruments such as the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Mayawati, on the other hand, is wasting no time visiting temples. She is effectively leveraging the BSP’s national presence to bargain hard with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where state elections are due. By asking Dalits and other marginalised groups to vote for themselves, the BSP continues to upset the practice among the marginalised of voting upwards. Mayawati has also engineered situations where the higher castes have had to vote downwards for the BSP.
The BSP’s national presence—and relevance—is largely owed to the fact that Ambedkarite party politics in north India is not fragmented. While there have been other social movements, the BSP has remained the most important political voice of Ambedkarites. Success in democratic politics demands moderation and pragmatism. Azad knows, and he doesn’t want to be known as ‘Ravana’ any more. But it may still be early days for him to joust politically with Mayawati. He will need to sustain radical bahujanwad in the social sphere for awhile.
Suryakant Waghmore is author of Civility against Caste. He currently teaches Sociology at IIT Bombay
Azad’s Bhim Army is at a crossroads: whether to take the electoral leap or continue as social radicals
HOMECOMING Chandrashekhar Azad after his release from jail on September 14, 2018