Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956
The great change in the politics of the Untouchables is that over large parts of India they can no longer be taken for granted as a dumb vote bank. To a much greater extent than even a decade ago they have begun to shape their own politics. The biggest change has been in the north, and the single most potent factor has been Kanshi Ram. He has given encour-agement to Dalits across India, even though he has failed to have a major electoral impact outside a few States of the north. But Kanshi Ram did not fabricate his own political success from nothing. The times have emi-nently suited him. While the V. P. Singh Government's adoption of the Mandal principles of reservation initially served to displace Kanshi Ram as a strong advocate of the oppressed, the Mandal factor later worked in his favour. The Mandal decision served to create and legitimate a new politics of the disadvantaged, and Kanshi Ram's later electoral alliances were creatures of this new political environment. Meanwhile, the rise of the BJP has obligingly sapped the capacity of Congress to compete for the Dalit vote.
While Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have been spectacularly successful in Uttar Pradesh, the success has been built on dubious foundations and has appeared in danger of collapse at every point. His strategy has been to build an organisation of his own, and to use this body to draw votes and even active support from social groupings beyond his own caste. But major electoral success has depended on the construction of alliances with other parties, and these alliances have lacked both principle and stability. Ram Vilas Paswan, by contrast, has pursued the more cautious route of climbing the ladder in a broader, socially more heterogeneous, party on the mild left of Indian politics. He has projected himself as the special leader of Dalits within this national party. Paswan's fortunes have risen and fallen with the position of his party, but his strategy is eminently more risk averse than that of Kanshi Ram. Like Ambedkar before him, Kanshi Ram has plotted a difficult route to power.
More generally, it is now abundantly clear that there can be no single political strategy for Dalits throughout India. If India had developed a dominant national politics constructed on the basis of class and relative disadvantage, the situation might be different. But it is also a mistake to assume that such a politics would necessarily have taken a form advanta-geous to the Dalits. In this chapter we have interrogated the record of Indian Marxism in relation to the Dalits, and found that considerations of caste have obstinately clung to its processes (as well, for that matter, to those of the similarly egalitarian faiths of Christianity and Sikhism). The current fragmentation of party politics means that no party can realisti-cally hope to command a national majority of the Dalit vote. But this too is not necessarily unfavourable for the Dalits. It will be recalled that in the era when they voted overwhelmingly for Congress their political and social power was considerably less than it is today. The common political task of the Dalits is to add to their collective power, but there can be no single strategy that will deliver this objective.