Decorative pieces in the party showcase:
The Bangaru charade
The cumulative effect of this crisis of Dalit leadership Is that the genuine concerns of the large Dalit mass In this country have been ignored
A month after the initial tehelka, life for Delhi’s power elite is returning to an almost worrying normalcy. The principal actos in the Tehelka theatre are moving right along. George Fernandes is back to doing what he does best, an opposition leader threatening to lead agitations all over the country. Jaya Jaitly has returned to her duties, not only in the Samata Party but as a cricketing mother-in-law. While Brajesh Mishra and N. K. Singh had winged their way to Tehran with the Prime Minister. The only one for whom life has dramatically changed is Bangaru Laxman, despite his brief reappearance at a BJp rally recently. Ex-BJP president, “failed” swayamsewak, he is seen to have crossed the Laxman rekha and forgotten a cardinal political principle : if you take money, never get caught.
If Laxman’s Kushak Road residence in Delhi was a beehive of activity a month ago, today there’s almost a funeral air about it. Even the guard at the gate doen’t stop you – a clear sign of fading power. Inside the house, Laxman sits on a sofa in splendid isolation, rubbing his bejeweled fingers anxiously, perhaps hoping that some genie will erase the Tehelka tapes from public memory. You almost feel sorry for him until one of his few remaining aides pipes up, “Saab is a victim of a conspiracy against Dalits!”
Conspiracy theorists are ready at hand. The foreign hand, the hidden enemy, the unscrupulous rival : each is seen to be an excuse for individual and collective failures. Unfortunately, in the case of Laxman, there can be no excuses. To attribute his downfall to the targeting of Dalits would be unfair and wholly inaccurate, and would be a complete injustice to the larger, more noble cause of uplifting the community he claims to represent. Instead, there should be an acceptance of another reality. The rise and fall of Laxman ius a consequence of the perils of tokenism.
Till he was made party president in mid-2000, Laxman was little more than an inconsequential BJP MP. Since he couldn’t have been elected to the Lok Sabha from his home state of Andhra, he was brought in through the Rajya Sabha backdoor from the state of Gujarat. He was made to contest a Lok Sabha election from a reserved constituency in Rajasthan, where he was defeated yet again. If he was made minister of state for railways, it was done in the knowledge that he could do little as a junior minister to derail Ray Bhavan. From there, if he was suddenly thrown into the BJP president’s chair, it was again because he was seen by the PMO to be pliable, someone who would never cross swords with Vajpayee.
But, most importantly, Laxman was the subaltern who could give the BJP a more politically correct face. In fact, Laxman had all the right qualifications for the top job. He was from the south in a party dominated by leaders from the Hindi heartland and he was a Dalit in a party identified with Brahminical hierarchies. How best to remove the stain of being a north Indian “Manuwadi” party than by making a south Indian Dalit the party president? Political achievement and a tried and tested mass base was not the criteria for Laxman’s selection. Only his caste mattered.
It was synical tokenism at its worst, the BJP preferred to describe it as social engineering at its best. This only reveals the hollowness of the social engineering slogan that has gained such currence in the political marketplace. Rather than opting for genuine political coalitions based on shared interests and ideals among castes, social engineering is now a quick-fix option : place a few Dalits, OBC and Muslim leaders in the upper rungs of the hierarchy, and instantly a party can claim to have transformed its image. So, even while the Vajpayees and Advanis called the shots, Laxman’s presence was designed to sustain the fiction that the BJP was moving from an upper caste entity to one that was more egalitarian.
Why blame the BJP alone? The fact is virtually every political party has chosen symbalism over substance. The Congress, in fact, had perfected the art of using Dalit leaders as sytmbols of their commitment to social equality, from Jagjivan Ram to his daughter Meira Kumar, without quite making any substantive changes in its leadership structure. The party today, for example, has two Dalits in its all-powerful working committee. Yet, neither Mukul Wasnik nor Mahabir Prasad can in any way claim to being even close to becoming the party’s real decision-makers, with the old upper-caste leadership remaining intact. In fact, one look at an allegedly “Mandalised” 13th Lok Sabha would only confirm the stunted growth of a Dalit political leadership. Ram Vilas Paswan, who claims to be the tallest Dalit leader within the treasury benches, is today a politician without a party, his politics being confined now to cellphone populism rather than any radical social transformation. On the opposition benches, there are the likes of Prakash Ambedkar, whose calling card remains dependent on the Congress for electoral success. While one of the original Dalit Panthers, Ramdas Athvale, is little more than a caricature of the political rebellion that he conce claimed to spearhead.
Perhaps, only the Myawati-Kanshi Ram double act can claim in a sense, to have tried to carve out an independent political identity for themselves. The initial Bahujan Samaj Party philosophy of insisting on power-sharing had led to a growing sense of empowerment among its supporters. But even here the gains made have been squandered through the patently anti-democratic leadership style which the duo has perfected.
The cumulative effect of this crisis of Dalit leadership is that the genuine concerns of the large Dalit mass in this country have been ignored. The social stigma and brutal psychological trauma attached to untouchability remainbs. For instance, in several primary schools around the country, Dalit children are still denied the basic right of learning with their upper caste counterparts in the same classroom. Not suprising then that in 1998-99, while there were 1.94 crore children from Dalit and Tribal communities in primary schools across the country, in the tenth class that number had dwindled to just 13.38 lakh, indicating an alarming drop-out rate.
If the political class wants to be more representative than it is, it perhaps needs to build cadres and mass movements that forge partnerships between castes and create credible leaders from all sections rather than display politically correct tokens in a showcase. Bangaru Laxman, in that sense, is always the soft option : easy to elevate, easier still to dump, The writer is with NDTV.
The views expressed here are his own.