As Chirag Paswan dominates the headlines in the run-up to the Bihar assembly election, another young Dalit leader is trying to make his presence felt. He has been criss-crossing the state in a helicopter, drawing modest crowds to his meetings — impressive for a leader making his political debut outside his home state, Uttar Pradesh. His political outfit, Azad Samaj Party, was registered by the Election Commission of India only last week.
Not that anybody in Bihar is putting any money on Chandrashekhar Azad, the president of the Azad Samaj Party (ASP), or the Progressive Democratic Alliance that he has formed with Jan Adhikar Party’s Pappu Yadav and a couple of other small parties. So much so that Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) showed no interest in the ASP’s offer to contest just five seats in an alliance. Azad has fielded 30 candidates and at least 10 of them, say ASP leaders, stand a ‘strong chance’ of romping home. The Azad Samaj Party may look inconsequential in the electoral sweepstakes in Bihar but a modest success here may potentially impact the political dynamics in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
Azad campaigns in Bihar with an eye on UP
Since 2015, when he founded the Bhim Army, Chandrashekhar Azad has been pursuing a confrontational path to protect Dalit rights and has landed in jails several times in the process. His activism and confrontational methods, unlike the politics of tokenism by most Dalit leaders and outfits, have caught the fancy of the community. His public meetings, roadshows and protests in UP, Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, and other parts of India drew enthusiastic responses. But his electoral potential remains untested.
That’s why he has entered the Bihar poll fray. ASP insiders say that even if the party wins two seats in Bihar, its objective will be fulfilled. The idea is to send a message in UP that Azad is a serious political contender outside the state as well.
And that’s why Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati has reasons to worry. Her influence among the Dalit community has been on the wane. Since the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, in which the BSP secured a majority with 30 per cent votes — backed by Brahmins, Muslims, and Other Backward Classes — its vote share in the assembly elections since has been on the decline — 26 per cent in 2012, and 22 per cent in 2017. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, the BSP’s vote share has veered around 20 per cent.
The decline has been attributed to the alienation of non-Jatavs who constitute about 45 per cent of the Dalits, who comprise 21.6 per cent of the population in UP. The non-Jatavs have been veering towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), thanks to the groundwork done by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Azad is looking to revive Mayawati’s old vote bank—Dalits, including Jatavs and non-Jatavs, Muslims and backward classes. He led protests outside Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital where a 20-year-old Hathras woman, who was allegedly gang-raped, died while Mayawati chose to voice her anguish on Twitter. The Hathras victim belonged to the Valmiki community. Azad, holding the photo of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and reading the Preamble to the Constitution along with thousands of anti-CAA protesters at Jama Masjid in January, made an appealing visual of a leader who is seeking to build a Dalit-Muslim vote bank. Mayawati’s reluctance to leave the comforts of her home in support of Dalit rights and her penchant for Twitter politics have only helped Azad’s cause.
Many disillusioned Dalit leaders have already quit the BSP and many are looking for options. “Inhone party khatam kar diya. Hum hi log phanse hai. Sab chale jayenge (She has finished the party. We are the only ones stuck. Everybody will leave),” a Mayawati aide rued in a conversation with this writer a couple of months ago.
Azad’s close aides say that if the ASP puts up a relatively good show in Bihar, winning even a couple of seats, it will trigger ‘mass defections’ from the BSP to his party ahead of the UP assembly election in 2022. Many BSP leaders tend to agree.
BJP and Congress’ symbolic Dalit politics
What has also helped Chandrashekhar Azad to emerge as a strong alternative Dalit voice is the failure of the two main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, to capitalise on Mayawati’s weakness. Thanks to the groundwork done by the RSS and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, the BJP was able to wean a section of Dalits, non-Jatavs, away from Mayawati’s fold. According to National Election Studies (NES), a post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies), in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, 17 per cent of the Jatavs and 48 per cent of the non-Jatavs voted for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). A spate of atrocities against Dalits in BJP-ruled states, may, however, adversely affect the BJP’s standing in the community.
The absence of credible Dalit faces is also an impediment for the BJP, which has been making attempts to reach out to Dalits since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time. Bangaru Laxman became the first Dalit BJP president in 2000 but he had to make an inglorious exit in the wake of Tehelka expose. The party has been giving representation to Dalits in the government as also in the organisation, but they are no more than figureheads. For instance, Thawarchand Gehlot, the Social Justice and Empowerment Minister, is the Dalit face in the Modi government and he is nowhere to be heard when there are incidents of atrocities against the community. In the recent organisational reshuffle, BJP president J.P. Nadda sought to send a message to Dalits, appointing Dushyant Kumar Gautam as national general secretary. But the move also betrayed the weak bench strength of Dalit leaders in the BJP. Gautam has never won a direct election; he lost in the 2008 and 2013 Delhi assembly elections.
The Congress, which has lost its Dalit vote bank over the decades, has also not been able to nurture a mass Dalit leader since Jagjivan Ram left the party in 1977. During the Manmohan Singh government, the party sought to project many Dalit faces — such as Sushil Kumar Shinde, Meira Kumar and Mukul Wasnik — by inducting them in the Cabinet, but it served little to revive its base. Continuing its politics of symbolism and tokenism vis-à-vis Dalits, the Congress recently brought Jagjivan Ram’s daughter, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, as permanent invitee to the Congress Working Committee (CWC). This came ahead of the Bihar assembly election. Priyanka Gandhi, the party general secretary in charge of UP, has, of late, been raising Dalit causes vociferously and was one of the first leaders to meet the grieving family of the Hathras victim. Such overtures to the Dalit community are, however, episodic and are unlikely to cut much ice with the Dalits, especially in the absence of any programmatic action on the ground and credible faces from the community in the party’s rank and file.
It is in this backdrop that Chandrashekhar Azad is being seen as a leader who may have the potential to dislodge established Dalit leaders such as Mayawati from their high pedestal in Lucknow. That’s why Mayawati may be worried about the outcome of the Bihar election. Not that Azad’s entire political future is at stake in Bihar. At worse, it could turn out to be a misadventure or just another stop in his long march to claim Dalit leadership. But, if he gets even modest success in Bihar, Dalit politics in UP will be in for a major churn in the run-up to the 2022 assembly election.
Views are personal.