The other day, I asked an Ambedkarite Buddhist from Maharashtra, who isn’t favourably disposed to the BJP, which way she would have voted if the presidential polls were to be direct elections with universal adult franchise.
Pat came the answer: Droupadi Murmu would be her choice and not Yashwant Sinha.
While many feel that the BJP has trounced political parties that relied on a Bahujan vote through the symbolism of offering plum posts to public figures belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes — thereby rendering the politics of social justice that held sway since the 1990s toothless — what the party has done amounts to a tweaking of the category Bahujan by adding the upper castes to it and pushing the delete button where it comes to Muslim representation.
The idea of Bahujan became much-talked-about with the rise of Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP. His organisation BAMCEF — Backward and Minority Communities’ Employees Federation — sought to stitch together an alliance of the SCs, STs, OBCs and religious minorities to take on the hegemony of the so-called upper castes in the heyday of the Congress.
Its agitational wing DS-4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) coined a slogan that said as much: “Brahmin, Thakur, Baniya chor; baaqi saare DS-4” (Brahmins, Thakurs and Baniyas are thieves. The rest belong to DS-4).
The idea was, however, based on a distinctive model developed in South India and Maharashtra more than a century back — the non-Brahmin movement that sought to bring on one platform all social groups to take on the prominence of Brahmins in government jobs and cultural life.
Clearly, the so-called upper castes were the Other of Bahujan, which literally means the majority of the population.
With the rise of the BJP and the deep inroads it has made into lower caste groups — thus changing its profile from a 'Brahmin-Baniya party' to one that has a preponderance of marginal groups right up to the top — the BJP has inaugurated and reinforced a new Bahujan over the last seven years. This is an electoral combination of the so-called upper castes, OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis, constituting the majority of the population and also bringing ‘Hindus’ under a single electoral umbrella. The one group that has been kept out of this and has seen its representation diminish is the Muslim community.
Using the politics of representation, the new Bahujan has replaced the 14.2 per cent Muslim population with the purported 15 per cent ‘upper caste’ population, thus tweaking the notion of Bahujan or the majority.
However, a few social scientists have noticed the change that has not just begun but become the new normal. For, the academia reacts to social change with a time lag. It is still largely caught in familiar categories, like Hindutva being ‘Brahmanical’ and the category Bahujan necessarily implying a bottom-up coalition that leaves the ‘upper castes’ out.
Another conceptual error that derails any attempt to understand the change is the academic quest for the ‘authentic’ Dalit. There has been a belief in the intelligentsia that an authentic Dalit is one who takes on Brahmanism and, by extension, Hinduism, and charts out an autonomous path. This same principle is then extended to seek out the authentic tribal and the authentic OBC.
However, a cursory look at modern Indian history shows that like all politics, Dalit politics was also diverse. It largely got divided into two streams: one that was integrationist — represented most powerfully by Jagjivan Ram — and the other emphasised on independent Dalit politics and was represented most powerfully by Dr BR Ambedkar.
The first stream held sway in the initial decades of Independence, as Dalits voted for the Congress in large numbers. However, by the 1980s, the rising Dalit middle class that had benefited from reservation sought not just jobs but a sense of equality within the work place and public sphere, which, they felt, still exuded upper caste hegemony. The Congress, which also had to give adequate representation to Muslims in power positions, apart from guarding its upper caste base, could not go beyond a distance to offer this Dalit middle class a sense of additional empowerment. In UP, India’s largest state, Dalits abandoned the Congress to embrace their ‘own’ party, the BSP.
However, the rise of the BJP, which had not been able to breach the majority mark in the Lok Sabha prior to 2014, under Narendra Modi reversed the equations.
The BJP got the chance to achieve what the Congress could never do: increasing Dalit, OBC and tribal representation without hurting its upper caste core vote. For, it was open to diminishing Muslim representation and had more seats and posts to spare than any other party ever. The upper castes were also ideologically reassured that Hindutva being in power offered them a cultural centrality.
Increasing the representation of marginal Hindu groups across the board — in legislatures, the Union Council of Ministers, state Cabinets and top constitutional posts — the BJP has been able to construct a new Bahujan, which makes interests across the Hindu caste spectrum converge, while ignoring Muslims.
Ironically, this change was happening even as many analysts and experts were hoping a Dalit-Muslim alliance would eventually trounce the BJP. However, the reverse was happening on the ground: while a section of the articulate Dalit intelligentsia was still critical of the BJP, large sections of less educated Dalits in rural areas were shifting to the BJP, abandoning the Congress and regional parties, including the BSP.
The new Bahujan is more successful than the politics of Dalit integration that the Congress practised decades back. For, the BJP is more open to expanding this representation. At present, people who do not belong to the so-called upper castes are set to occupy the top three constitutional posts.
Vikas Pathak is a columnist and media educator. The views expressed are personal.