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Such is the preponderance of identity politics that even the election of the next President of India has been subsumed under the acrimonious debate over ‘authentic vs. spurious’ representatives of Dalits. The political shift within the Hindutva discourse, of seeing Ambedkar as a ‘false god’ to accepting him as a ‘subaltern god’ coupled with a positive interface with both Dalit elites as well as Dalit masses in the Hindi heartland, has unsettled the overarching consensus as to who could be claimed as being an authentic representative of the Dalits.
Against this backdrop, there has been a charged debate proclaiming some personalities as ‘stooges’ and others as ‘real’. Mere birth in a Dalit caste, it’s claimed, would not be adequate to qualify one as being an authentic claimant of the category. This means, one is not born as a Dalit but rather acquires the self by actively internalising the desired attributes by undergoing a process of specific political socialisation.
Here, the selection of Meira Kumar, the daughter of towering Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram who remained the hegemonic Dalit icon in the Hindi heartland from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, as the consensus candidate of anti-BJP opposition parties to counter the BJP’s Dalit candidate Ram Nath Kovind, signifies the popularly perceived hierarchy within the Dalit discourse.
The current shift within the Dalit discourse needs to be seen in the context of the 1980s when Ambedkarite politics emerged in the Hindi heartland under the leadership of Kanshi Ram stigmatising Jagjivan Ram not only as anti-Ambedkar but rather as a ‘Chamcha Dalit’. The political model of Kanshi Ram was heavily borrowed from Maharashtrian Mahar-centric Dalit politics.
Having failed in replicating that model in his native state of Punjab which accounts for the highest percentage of Dalits, he moved to Uttar Pradesh, given its sizeable Dalit population. But despite making a claim of a new Ambedkarite Dalit self, Kanshi Ram ensured that the movement and his party (BSP) stayed under the hegemonic control of Jatav-Chamars, a fact that is still reflected in the organisational profile of BSP. This leads to the inference that even the Ambedkarite Dalit politics was itself caste centric.
Secondly, the selection of Meira Kumar also needs to be contextualised in the backdrop of a series of Dalit protests under claimed Ambedkarite outfits in various parts of the country — most recently at Saharanpur by the Bhim Sena.
At a time when it seemed that the anti-BJP Dalit discourse is acquiring an autonomy under young leaderships like Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar — a shift opposition parties may capitalise upon — the selection of Meira Kumar acquires profound significance. She was selected by 17 opposition parties including Left parties and the BSP for being a Dalit, woman, ex-diplomat, ex-speaker, but most importantly for being the cultural and political inheritor of Jagjivan Ram. The fact, that Mayawati publicly welcomed her candidature and thanked anti-BJP opposition parties has a symbolic relevance given that the same leader along with Kanshi Ram lost no opportunity to stigmatise Jagjivan Ram in the 1980s and 1990s.
Thirdly, Meira Kumar also signifies less about the reemergence of a Gandhian framework in the Dalit discourse than about the existential crisis that Ambedkarite Dalit politics is going through. The latter is like an anchorless ship drifting from one ideological stream to the other. While one set of erstwhile Ambedkarite leaders like Ramdas Athavale and Udit Raj, the claimants of the ‘authentic Dalit self, have joined the bandwagon of the Hindutva discourse, the episodic and event-specific emergence of new Ambedkarite leaderships like Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar are an ‘agency in flux’ who disappear from the centrestage once the specific incidents causing their emergence are overwhelmed by other events.
The selection of Meira as a consensus candidate over the likes of Prakash Ambedkar indicates that the counter to the rightward shift of Dalit elites and Dalit masses is going to be fought under the Gandhian Dalit discourse that Jagjivan Ram symbolised. Ironically, the model of Jagjivan Ram politics died two deaths, one by the Congress in the early 1980s when he was made insignificant and invisible by the post-Emergency Congress leadership and second by his fellow Dalit politician Kanshi Ram. By the time Kanshi Ram started vilifying him to create his own Dalit constituency, the latter’s political model was already dead. What Kanshi Ram succeeded in killing was the remnant of the Jagjivan Ram model.
A symbolic reading of the selection of Meira Kumar points to the emergence of two fluid but dominant models of Dalit discourse, namely, Hindutva and Gandhian, with the remnants of the mid-1980s model of Ambedkarite Dalits getting subsumed under one or the other. In response to the emergence of subaltern Hindutva, the opposition parties are forced to come under the rubric of centrism that the Gandhian discourse signified.
Meira Kumar’s candidature, even her highly likely defeat, signifies a comeback of the Gandhian discourse on the Dalit question. In future, the terms, ‘Dalit and Harijan’ may not be placed as antagonistic to each other and there is a possibility the self-referential terms may acquire a normative equivalence — already a sociological fact — in popular as well as analytical usages.
(Sajjan Kumar is a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specialising in political and electoral research)