Until very recently, parties like Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand had played an impressive role in mobilizing marginalized communities as agents independent politicians and had raised their stature in democratic deliberations. These parties represented a bold aspiration that socially marginalized communities, especially Dalits and Adivasis, will play a vanguard role in the democratic regime and emerge as the alternative ruling class. However, the electoral success of these parties has been limited and in contemporary political battles has failed to stem the assertive assertion of the right at the national level.
Interestingly, it is the right-wing political organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claims to represent the interests of subaltern social groups more effectively and has thus disrupted the legitimacy of social justice policies. The BJP proposes a new political agenda based on Dalit-Adivasi cultural symbols, harnesses the emerging political aspirations of the most disadvantaged social groups and mobilizes them by raising emotive community issues.
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The BJP points out that a large number of legislators from the reserved constituencies are elected under its symbol and that the party has provided effective leadership of the Dalit-Adivasi at local and regional levels. For similar reasons, the elevation of Draupadi Murmu as the NDA’s candidate for the prestigious post of Indian President is an impressive political move by the BJP to lure socially marginalized sections into its camp and further relegate independent Dalit-Adivasi politics.
The right-wing interest in Dalit-Adivasi issues is populist and pragmatic. Especially in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, effective socio-cultural programs have been devised by the BJP to form an effective link with the lower castes and Adivasi communities. This helped the party broaden its social base and enhance its identity as a party of the diverse Hindu population. Behind such hyperconstruction of ‘Subaltern Hindutva’ lies a compelling political claim that Dalits and Adivasis not only benefit immensely from the Modi regime on the political front, but that their social and class conditions are also improving.
It is important to note that some sections of Dalits and Adivasis also welcome the avatar change of Hindutva politics, as it recognizes them as a crucial pressure group and sometimes offers them material benefits.
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These ‘subordinate’ sections within the Dalits and Adivasis are bewitched by the policy of accommodation and the fascinating rhetoric of the Hindutva’s welfare policy. Emerging Dalit-Adivasi leaders are accentuated by the new promise of capitalist development and Hindu unity. Moreover, the elevation of Dalit-Adivasi leaders to important political positions helps the ruling classes to build the belief that conventional tensions between ruling elites and subordinate castes cease to operate. In particular, the candidacy of Draupadi Murmu strongly supports such a belief and would further assist the right-wing party in consolidating Hindutva hegemony over the moderate Dalit-Adivasi sections.
Such a political evolution offers two contradictory tendencies in current democratic processes. On the one hand, there is a visible survival of Dalit-Adivasi leaders and political parties who vouch for bringing about a radical transformation in the political system and heralding its ideological challenge against right-wing hegemony without much compromise. Although the Dalit-Adivasi political movement faces overt marginalization in electoral politics today, it remains a powerful ideological force that impresses and engages many in building struggles to bring about sweeping socio-political change.
On the other side are the passive, moderate and ambitious Dalit-Adivasi classes who rationally situate the changing political process and are gradually moving towards the barracks of Hindutva politics, deserting the camp of social justice. They hold high the flag of cultural symbols while avoiding sincere deliberations on the absence of strong and independent Dalit-Adivasi leaders at regional and national levels. It is also apparent that some Dalit-Adivasi leaders are comfortable playing second fiddle to social elites, reluctant to demand effective representation of socially marginalized communities in institutions of power, and remain silent when incidents of atrocities, Violence and killings take place against Dalits and Adivasis. These passive and comprador Dalit-Adivasi political elites legitimized the “subordinate Hindutva” avatar of the BJP.
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Any superficial reading of the post-independence history of Indian democracy would show that Dalit-Adivasi communities have remained peripheral, powerless and even invisible in mainstream political deliberations. There are endless instances of atrocities, police brutality, corporate exploitation of labor and land, and overt relegation of their demands for social justice and dignity. Even an overview of the socio-economic conditions of Dalits and Adivasis would demonstrate that a large proportion of them survive in precarious and miserable social conditions. Their participation in the main institutions of power such as the judiciary, academic institutes, the media and the high bureaucracy is the bare minimum.
It was only after the arrival of massive and grassroots socio-political struggles by Dalit-Adivasi leaders and intellectuals in the mid-1970s (with parties like the Republican Party of India, JMM, BSP and the Lok Party Janshakti) that Dalit and Adivasis issues and concerns have found a recognizable place in national politics. It was only after their powerful social movements and political mobilization that the ruling elites recognized that without meeting the crucial demands of subordinate groups, governing India would be a difficult task. It seems that the new Dalit-Adivasi generation associated with right-wing politics missed out when this part of history was taught in school.
For the Dalit-Adivasi mass, welcoming Murmu as India’s new president is like a sentimental comfort that warms their crunchy souls. This shows that their identities still have a significant impact on the democratic regime. However, such celebrations often eschew sincere deliberation on the existing class tensions and social inequalities that make the daily lives of Dalit-Adivasis perpetually miserable.
Ironically, the right resists any sincere deliberation on substantive issues of social justice, but willingly executes innovative cultural tactics to retain its hegemony over Dalit and Adivasi minds. Nominating Draupadi Murmu for the top constitutional post is an effective strategy to further enhance the BJP’s ‘Subaltern Hindutva’ image. It is also predictable that such symbolism will mean very little to the poor and struggling Adivasis of Jharkhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.
(The writer teaches at the Center for Political Studies, JNU)