Though, of late the prominent Dalit political faces in poll-bound Bihar are up for grabs, the truth is that nationally the Scheduled Castes leadership is facing increasing marginalisation–in spite of the restiveness among the community as such. Even in Bihar their leaders have lost considerable bargaining position.
Nothing exemplifies this better than former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s abject surrender before his former boss and present CM Nitish Kumar.
In the last at least eight years the biggest Dalit party of India, the Bahujan Samaj Party, had suffered at least four humiliating defeats–two each in Assembly and Lok Sabha polls–in Uttar Pradesh. In rest of the countries legislators winning election on the BSP ticket are wooed by bigger parties. The latest example is of Rajasthan where last September all the six BSP MLAs had joined the ruling Congress party.
The matter was recently in the news too as the BSP central leadership had moved court just ahead of trust votes. This was not the first such instance. The BSP MLAs have been allured in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar etc in the last several years. In Punjab, the home state of Kanshi Ram, where the Dalits form the largest percentage in the country–almost 32.9–the BSP has completely been marginalised.
Though the BSP came to power on its own in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 the decline at the all India level started after the demise of Kanshi Ram on October 9, 2006. The party lost the election in 2012 to Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and again in 2017 to the BJP.
The sharp decline of the stature of four-time chief minister Mayawati, paved the way for the rise of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, a lawyer from Saharanpur, who floated Bhim Army in 2014. On the occasion of the birthday of Kanshi Ram on March 15 , 2020 he formed a political party Azad Samaj Party. This new outfit is keenly eyeing Bihar too.
Though he appears to be ambitious he is not likely to cut much ice in Bihar, where too the established SC leaders are facing challenge from different quarters.
Elsewhere in the country Dalit leaders have lost much of their clout in the last few years.
In Bhimrao Ambedkar’s land, Maharashtra, the splinter group of Republican Party of India (A) went on to join the NDA and its leader Ramdas Athawale became minister of state.
After the rise of BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi the saffron brigade has made all out efforts to placate the extremely neglected Dalit sub-castes, especially in UP and Bihar. Jatavs or Ravidas and Paswans or Dussadhs form the creamy layer of Scheduled Castes and are the main beneficiaries of reservation. The BJP fully exploited this situation.
In Bengal, where the election is due next year, the BJP would leave no stone unturned to win over the Scheduled Castes voters who in the last Assembly poll reposed full faith in the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. As the social situation in Bengal is quite different Dalits mostly vote for the mainstream parties. The question of Dalit identity is not so pronounced here.
In Bihar apparently the Lok Janshakti Party won six Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and thus sounds the strongest Dalit party. But this is only on paper as the victory in so many seats was possible only because of the Narendra Modi factor and social combination formed after the alliance with the BJP and Janata Dal United. Otherwise, the party could win only one seat in the 2015 Assembly election which too it contested as an NDA constituent. In 2015 the LJP contested 42 seats against the BJP 157, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party 23, and Hindustani Awam Morcha 21. Then the Janata Dal United was a Grand Alliance constituent.
The NDA could win 58 seats–53 by the BJP, three by RLSP and one each by LJP and HAM. In fact the only seat won by HAM was that of Imamganj in Gaya district by the former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. So the two Dalit outfits could win only two seats though they contested 63–42 and 2 by LJP and HAM.
After losing hope in Dalit leaders the BJP once again started cultivating relationship with Nitish Kumar and thus ensured his home coming in July 2017.
The humiliated Manjhi then crossed to the Grand Alliance ahead of last year’s Lok Sabha election and managed to get three seats–thanks to the generosity shown by RJD chief Lalu Prasad. The HAM was humbled in all three, including Gaya, where Manjhi himself was the candidate.
Having lost all his political clout Manjhi gave in before Nitish and agreed to contest seven to nine seats in the coming Assembly election as the NDA constituents. The Janata Dal United would leave from its quota these seats. In 2015 HAM contested on 21 seats–thus a big climbdown.
The emaciated LJP is still trying to flex muscles and its leaders Ram Vilas Paswan and son Chirag are not ready to contest even one less than 42 seats. As in this new situation the Janata Dal United is not in position to leave many seats the only possibility left was to give a handful of them to Manjhi.
The LJP has been left with one option: Either to join hands with the Grand Alliance or along with Pappu Yadav Jan Adhikar Party and others form a sort of Third Front. If it joins the Grand Alliance Chirag may have to field second fiddle to Tejashwi Prasad Yadav. He may not accept this role and be a deputy chief minister candidate of Grand Alliance.
As an ambitious politician Chirag may like to be the CM candidate and Pappu Yadav is backing him. In that case elements within the BJP may clandestinely back LJP candidates in constituencies where the Janata Dal United is in fray. A sizeable section of BJP leaders want to cut Nitish to size and this would be the best way. But then the risk is big as in the process both the LJP and Janata Dal United may lose those seats and the Grand Alliance may romp through. So it is a risky proposition.
As if that was not enough Nitish Kumar is playing another risky game. He is promoting former chief of Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee, Ashok Chaudhary, who switched over to the Janata Dal United a couple of years back. He is a minister in the Nitish cabinet.
He is from Pasi community and is the son of former Union minister Mahavir Chaudhary, a senior Congress leader of the yesteryears.
By promoting Ashok Chaudhary and planning to field him from Phulwarisharif Assembly seat in Patna district Nitish deliberately pushed out another seasoned Dalit leader and minister in his cabinet Shyam Rajak. Rajak crossed over to the RJD.
Thus instead of seeing these Dalit leaders as asset, mainstream parties have started treating them as political football. Ironically, all this is happening when Dalit masses are feeling restless due to a series of policies implemented by the Narendra Modi government.
(Soroor Ahmed is a senior journalist based in Patna. The views are personal.)