Dalits and elections

By Gail Omvedt

WHAT HAVE Dalits gained from the electoral process in India? What have they contributed? These questions assume significance since there is now clear evidence that Dalits vote more than and vote differently from other sections. First, their turnout has been higher, according to surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Societies (CSDS) in Delhi. In spite of the fact that the organisations calling for an active boycott of the ``bourgeois elections'' - the naxalite outfits of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar - have been based more among the Dalits than the other sections and in spite of occasional intimidation by dominant sections to prevent them from voting, the Dalits in general have taken elections as a means of exercising some kind of democratic right.

Second, the Dalit voting is markedly different from that of other ``Hindus''. The Dalits are significantly less likely to vote for the BJP than caste Hindus would. This difference also seems to be increasing. In 1996, according to the CSDS, 13.2 per cent of the Dalits as against 27.1 per cent of the caste Hindus voted for the BJP; in 1998 the percentage was 13.5 and 34.5. The same trend was seen in 1999, though the exit polls were not very clear on this because they put SCs and STs together, and included the ``BJP and allies'' in one category. This does not mean that the Congress is benefiting significantly; the Dalit vote for the Congress has gone down even more decisively than that of the general population. In 1967, 45.2 per cent of the Dalits voted for the Congress; this figure rose to 52.8 per cent in 1980. But by the late 1980s, this share declined; and only 31.4 per cent in 1996 and 29.9 per cent in 1998 voted for the Congress.

Who then are the Dalits voting for? They are voting somewhat more for the Left - 10.6 per cent at the all-India level compared to 8.6 per cent of the caste Hindus who voted for the communist parties in 1998; the Janata Dal has also claimed a good representation. But this is again a declining factor and varies heavily with region. The most significant trend is that where possible the Dalits are voting for their own parties, which not only openly proclaim their identity as Dalit-based but are led by the Dalits. In Maharashtra, this has meant the Republican Party founded by Babasaheb Ambedkar; here the survey results are rather distorted because a major section of the Dalits, ex-Mahar Buddhists, is often not counted as Scheduled Castes. But at the national level, the primary example is the Bahujan Samaj Party with its base in Uttar Pradesh and to some extent in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. The BSP has clearly been a rising political force among the Dalits and to a lesser extent among OBCs.

There are other interesting aspects of the Dalit voting, according to the CSDS survey. Young voters are more likely to favour the BSP. The Congress and the BJP get more votes from ``adults'' of 36 to 45 years, while the Left parties get their highest votes from the 26-35 year group. Women are more likely to vote for the Congress; men are more likely to vote for the BSP, the Left and even the BJP. There is a clear rural-urban difference: urban voters are much in favour of the two main parties, while rural votes go disproportionately to the BSP, the Left or the Janata Dal. And in terms of class, the very poor heavily favour the communists and socialists, but this trend quickly changes; the merely ``poor'' are more likely to favour the BSP and the middle level voters the Congress and the BJP, while the ``rich'' Dalits, yes there are a few, vote for the BJP.

For all the specific voting patterns, there is little evidence that the Dalits are yet able to emerge as a direction-giving political force. The general accusation against the Dalit electoral politics is that it is marked by opportunism and negativism. But the situation faced by the Dalits needs to be carefully understood.

``Opportunism'' has entailed making alliances with the Hindutva parties in spite of clear preferences on the part of nearly all Dalits for a secular position. Part of the reason lies in the differences among Dalit castes, which are not shown in the overall patterns of Dalit voting. The lack of unity among the Dalits themselves, in fact sharp divisions which exist in some States - between Buddhists and Matangs in Maharashtra, between Malas and Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, and so on -, is reflected in the patterns of electoral participation. In Maharashtra, for instance, the Matangs and Charmarkar (leather-working) communities have been completely left out of the RPI and they vote for the Congress or the BJP-Shiv Sena.

There is some allegiance among a few sections of the Dalits to the Hindutva forces, but this is not a new development. The trend dates back to the colonial period when organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha wooed the Dalits, placing them in the Hindutva framework and arguing that Valmiki and other forerunners were originally among the creators of the ``Hindu'' religion. The ``shuddhi'' movement of the Arya Samaj was an important mass campaign trying actively to incorporate the Dalits with the Hindus (turning them into ``Shudras''!) and laying the ground for an expansion of the ``Hindu'' identity. Even before that there were many Dalits who expressed their humanity and aspirations within the Brahmanical framework, including such famous ``poet- saints'' as Chokamela in Maharashtra. Various efforts by contemporary Hindutva forces, projecting Narayana Guru as an alternative to Ambedkar or having a ``Harijan'' lay the foundation stone for the Ram temple at Ayodhya are part of this tradition of cooption and ``Hinduisation.''

Such efforts, though, may be losing their success. One example is the assertion by the DKVs in Tamil Nadu. The new name of this community, which was once called ``Pallar'' and which constitutes the largest caste in some of the southern districts, Devendra Kula Vellalars, seems a clear reference to the Vedic traditions of Indra. However, this name itself dates back to the colonial period Hindutva efforts to woo the Dalits by providing them a more exalted history; and today the DKV leaders such as Dr. K. Krishnasami explain it as meaning simply ``great king'' and declare themselves firm Ambedkarites. It would seem that the current ``Hindu'' identities of the DKVs, the Madigas, the Matangs and other Dalit groups are only a transitory step in the long path to self-respect.

What seems increasing is the tendency to view almost all political parties as fundamentally opposed to Dalit interests. There is a pervasive idea that the Congress itself represents the greatest and most dangerous enemy. It is as upper caste dominated and ``Hindu'' at its core as the BJP but more likely to give the illusion of a pro-poor force. Thus the BSP leader, Mr. Kanshi Ram, consistently calls it a ``snake in the grass'' while the editor of the Dalit Voice, Mr. Rajshekar, argues that the ``socialist Brahmans,'' in contrast to the ``sacred Brahmans'', are more dangerous. In this case, from the perspective of most Dalit activists, alliances with the BJP or the Congress come not through political commitment, through an acceptance of Hindutva values or a feeling that the Congress represents a secular force. Instead, in a long-term effort to build a new Dalit political force, electoral alliances are simple matters of short-term calculation or even survival. At present, most of the Dalit parties are too weak to survive alone; when the BSP took the support of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, it did so out of weakness, at a time when the Samajwadi Party was threatening its existence. The alliances then are not ``opportunistic'' but are rather tactical, or at best strategic. Even so, the question of programme, of a long-term vision of an equalitarian, free, transformed society and how to achieve it, remains.

THE CHARGE of ``negativism'' against Dalit politics has to be understood in the context of today's social and political situation, as a positive negativity, part of a dialectic process in which old social forces have to be confronted while preparing the ground for the emergence of the new ones.

Negativity involves confrontation with the immediate enemy, sometimes at the cost of long-term necessary alliances, but is inevitable to establish the Dalits' own identity and power. Negativity may be seen in various ways, in the orientation to the election process itself and in ``populist'' tendencies in power.

In the rather dismal party situation today, for many Dalits the election process is an end in itself, as much as any possible hope of gain from the poll outcome. The BSP leader, Mr. Kanshi Ram's statement, ``we are for unstable governments'' symbolises this view: Let elections come every year, they bring opportunities to get at least some minimal rewards, some enjoyment of the fact that for once the political bosses will have to treat the Dalits politely, as the leaders make supplications for votes rather than the citizen-subjects going to the leaders for patronage, jobs and other favours.

In fact, for under-employed rural and urban masses, the election process brings some immediate sources of income. Today, under the Election Commission, the process is undergoing important changes. The days of open violence and booth-capturing seem to have gone; rather than massive open intimidation of voters and bandit-like stuffing of boxes with thousands of votes, now only a stray candidate gets murdered or a few voters suffer in regions where naxalites are trying to enforce their boycott at gun point. Elections today are largely peaceful. This itself means some benefit to the poor.

The elections are also a lot less noisy and gaudy. Huge cut-outs are fewer; blaring songs are heard less. This means the Indian elections are a lot less obtrusive and troublesome to people than those in that centre of democracy, United States, where the thrust of constant television advertisements becomes practically inescapable. (And the increasing personal attacks on rival candidates also seem to represent a kind of ``Americanisation''; the scale of accusations and counter-accusations, trying to stamp the opponents unpatriotic, anti-people, rogues and liars has reached its zenith).

Beyond this, there are some subtler and interesting changes in India. Due to the rigid legalism of the EC regulations, candidates, instead of spending on open and obvious advertising, find it easier to distribute money to supporters and workers. Counting agents, polling agents and volunteers of all kinds are paid. Previously, even in relatively ``non-violent'' elections in States such as Maharashtra, candidates would simply pack trucks with bands of slogan-shouting supporters; now they have to be paid for their work. This means, cynically speaking, that aside form the value of their democratic vote, the poor are helped by the election process with income, something like ``work'', a relief from the daily routine. Further, it may lead to some immediate small gains - laying of a road, etc; in the constituencies of important leaders and ministers, it can lead to many job-providing development programmes, a process described in U.S. politics as ``log-rolling''.

The democratic process has also brought some Dalit participation in government. There is not only the stray MLA or MP elected from the reserved constituency; there are ministers (in Welfare Ministries, if nothing else) and occasionally even Chief Ministers. In this regard, the ``negativism'' usually comes down to the fact that these apparently Dalit-headed Governments and ministries have done little more for mass welfare than other parties. Participation seems at best populist; the BSP itself specifically does not offer a programme but interprets Ambedkar's bold dream, ``we must become a ruling community'', as if political power were sufficient by itself. It seems to have no economic or cultural vision, and governmental power seems to have come down to patronage and symbolism: putting up statues of Ambedkar, getting more and more SCs in positions of power and transferring recalcitrant Brahman officials. States like Uttar Pradesh have not seen any greater overall welfare for the oppressed Dalit masses; nor did the functioning of the Railways show any improvement with a Dalit as Minister.

The major parties have only more articulated and polished manifestos; these mean little. The kind of ``left-right'' divisions which existed in classical parliamentary politics in Europe and North America and which involved some long-term and ideological differences over how to manage society and the economy do not seem to be here.

Leave aside the Left parties, whose project of socialism has in recent years seemed linked only to the defence of trade union interests and opposition to any concrete economic reform. What about the two main parties? The BJP and the Congress do have significantly different social bases, with the BJP getting more of its support from the middle classes, upper castes and urbanites. But this is hardly linked to economic policy; both parties have ``right'' and ``left'' in the classic sense, impulses towards the market or the state. It was the Congress, party of original statism, which stumbled into liberalism; and it was the ``Brahman-Bania'' BJP which has fostered the most vociferous swadeshi-statist lobby. Both are now swearing to ``continue the reforms,'' whatever this means. But few of the leaders of either party seem to have gotten into the habit of placing their economic views before the country.

The diesel dispute is a good indication. The government may be right in raising the price of a polluting, unhealthy and unnecessarily subsidised fuel; saving funds for investment in benign means of transport such as the railways. But no one bothered to explain the logic of this to the public; the minister in charge could only mumble that ``it is necessary for the economy.'' When ministries are distributed as party quotas and not on political merit, the Dalits can hardly be blamed for trying to focus first on getting ``their'' quota. When populism is rampant everywhere, when opposing parties contest government measures (the diesel case is again a good indication) simply to grab some support, the Dalits can hardly be blamed for pushing their own short-term populism.

In the end, the Dalits will have to be more visionary than the general population. They have their short-term and long-term agenda: first to fight the immediate oppressors, make a step forward, survive; and then transform society. Linking the two was crucial to Ambedkar's politics; and his writings on cultural, political and economic issues were concrete and detailed. Moving into the changing times of the new millennium, when the old political lines of ``right'' and ``left'' in any case become outmoded, when not a factory proletariat but an information-based ``service sector'' is dominant in the work force, the Dalits will be in a position to make a contribution to a new vision.

They need a state which can intervene for welfare purposes and to ensure the base of education and health; they also need a well- functioning market. Assertive electoral participation for a long- term project of reformulating the path towards a society of social justice is their challenge ahead.

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