Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956

The surprising durability of the Bahujana Samaj Party

The last several years have been an exhilarating roller coaster ride for Kanshi Ram, replete with towering peaks and deep troughs. His ambition has been to become the kind of national leader the Dalits have never had. In 1994 he made his most concerted bid to build a national movement by conducting rallies and meetings in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The Bahujana Samaj had contested seats in a number of these States as early as 1989, but Kanshi Ram was now more serious about taking his message throughout the country. But these efforts came to little, particularly in the strong Communist States of Kerala and West Bengal. There, his caste-based analysis failed to cut into the prevailing ideology constructed out of the language of class. Kanshi Ram developed a considerable following in Andhra, where he staged a number of impressive rallies. It seemed for a time that he could have entered into a governing alliance with NTR's Telegu Desam Party, but negotiations broke down and the Bahujana Samaj was soon a spent force in Andhra. After the fall of Mayawati's Government in Lucknow it became clear that the national and provincial elections of 1996 would be crucial to the very survival of the party.

Although candidates were to be put up in a number of States, Uttar Pradesh was by far the most important arena. Given the close competi-tion between the three leading political forces - Congress, the BJP and the 'Third Front' of leftist and regional parties - Kanshi Ram hoped to be in a position to dictate outcomes at both State and national levels. But the whole history of his party suggested that there could be little electoral success without an alliance with another major force. The logical partner was the Janata Dal, but Kanshi Ram declared himself against any new alliance that included Mulayam (Interview: 1996). This stand appeared tantamount to political suicide. It was clear that Kanshi Ram's movement could not easily survive a poor result in Uttar Pradesh in 1996. Unlike the figure of Ram Vilas Paswan, Kanshi Ram had set his sights on great and rapid victories. His age and ill health seem to have intensified the sense of urgency that had succeeded the patience of his earlier years in politics.

Considering its lack of strategic alliances, the Bahujana Samaj Party did surprisingly well in the Lok Sabha election of 1996. It won a total of eleven seats, six of them in Uttar Pradesh, three in Punjab and two in Madhya Pradesh. (In the previous Parliament its only UP seat was the one occupied by Kanshi Ram himself.) It was clear that Mayawati had become something of a cult figure in Uttar Pradesh. And in order to com-pensate for its lack of partners the party had energetically sought to woo communities other than its own vote bank of Chamars. The still leader-less Muslims were a particular target, and about one-quarter of the party's tickets in Uttar Pradesh had been conceded to Muslims (The Pioneer: i8 September 1996). There were also a number of Backward Caste candidates.

In the subsequent UP Assembly election in 1996 Kanshi Ram and Mayawati reverted to the approach of constructing a strategic alliance. This time their ally was Congress. Amazingly, given its glorious past, Congress was relegated to the position ofjunior partner, and it was agreed that the combination's candidate for Chief Minister would be Mayawati. Kanshi Ram was reported to have asked Congress to field 100 Brahmins in the 125 seats allotted to it, so as to wean the upper castes from the BJP and attract them back to Congress (The Pioneer: 9 July 1996). Again Kanshi Ram was playing the caste game with ruthless application. His own list of candidates was carefully mixed according to the appropriate communitarian formula: of his sixty-seven successful candidates, nine are upper caste representatives, twelve are Muslims, twenty-six from the Backward Castes and twenty Dalits (The Times of India: 27 October 1996).

The overall result of the 1996 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was strikingly similar to the previous Assembly election: the BJP won 174 seats in the Assembly of 425 seats; Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party won 110 seats; and the Bahujana Samaj (67) and Congress (33) jointly won ioo. Again there was a stalemate. For a time it appeared that Mulayam Singh, now installed as Defence Minister in New Delhi, would be forced by his coalition partners at the centre to back a Bahujana Samaj-Congress Government in Uttar Pradesh. This plan ultimately col-lapsed under the weight of multiple rivalries and suspicions. President's rule from the centre persisted until finally a Bahujana Samaj-BJP coali-tion Government took office in Lucknow in March 1997. This time the agreement was that Mayawati would serve as Chief Minister for six months and then give way to Kalyan Singh from the BJP for the same period. Again Kanshi Ram and Mayawati could argue that it did not matter which of the 'Manuwadi' parties they made an alliance with Congress or the BJP. Their task was simply to get into government and remake the system from the inside. And second time around their abrasiveness has been even greater. During the drawn-out struggle to form a Government Mayawati was so fearful of her Assemblymen defect-ing to other parties that she locked them up in the Party headquarters in Lucknow for a period of weeks. They were not allowed out of the build-ing, not even for Diwali, and visitors could see them for no more than fifteen minutes at a time (The Asian Age: i November 1996). During this same period Kanshi Ram's always strained relations with the 'Manuwadi' media deteriorated to the point that he ordered an attack on a group of journalists outside his official residence in New Delhi. He personally assaulted one of the journalists, and criminal charges are pending.

It is far too early to make a mature assessment of the Kanshi Ram- Mayawati phenomenon. Early on it might have been thought that the two leaders had achieved little more than the transfer of Congress Chamars to their own party in the context of the overall collapse of Congress in the north. It is certainly true that their only stable 'vote bank' is the Chamars, and no doubt a principal reason for the Chamars' support is their understanding that this is 'their' party. The Chamars have also responded favourably to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati's arrogant disdain for orthodoxy and their denunciation of the large and petty oppressions that still characterise the lives of many Chamars. This com-munity is now richer, better educated and bolder than when it gave its support to Jagjivan Ram. But Kanshi Ram and more recently Mayawati have also worked hard to dispel the notion that their party represents only the Dalits, let alone simply the Chamars. They have had consider-able success in attracting other groups, including Muslims, to their cause, despite their willingness to cultivate relations with the anti-Muslim BJP. To what extent their approach is more than opportunistic exploitation of the multiple divisions of contemporary Uttar Pradesh society remains a question. Perhaps this question will partly be answered by the impact Mayawati can make on the apparatus of government in Uttar Pradesh, such that a culture of governance less hostile to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy begins to emerge. Undoubtedly Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have their faults, but they do represent a more aggressive attack on the order of social orthodoxy than has previ-ously been seen from participants in the mainstream of Indian electoral politics. Kanshi Ram has shown that a person of Dalit origins can lead a party that wins seats at the ballot box and is not afraid to form a Government that puts the interests of the most subordinated Indians at its very centre. Throughout India it will now be more difficult to ignore the interests of Dalits.

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