In order to manufacture an electoral majority, parties need to carefully build social coalitions. The Congress has traditionally avoided shaping a social coalition that would explicitly exclude any section of persons from its ambit. As such, the Congress strategy came to be known as a rainbow strategy. Even when it was forced to build a social coalition, the Congress was more content with a “coalition of extremes” rather than a cleavage-based coalition of underprivileged sections, either in caste/ community or class terms. In contrast, the 1990s witnessed social coalitions based on the principle of social cleavage — mainly in terms of caste.
In the post-1989 period, Mulayam Singh Yadav has been identified with the Muslim-Yadav combination, while Lalu Prasad’s success owed much to the support he mustered among the Dalits of Bihar in addition to the OBCs, particularly the Yadavs, and Muslims of the state. Even the abortive and ill-fated SP-BSP coalition was predicated on the assumption that both these social groups had a common battle to fight.
The BJP took recourse to building a social coalition based on community cleavages by alleging a fundamental difference between the interests of the majority Hindu and the minority Muslim communities. This definition of social division has been central to the BJP’s politics since the late 1980s. In its calculations, this cleavage has the potential of mobilising the majority Hindu community around issues of religious identity and a perceived threat from the minority community. The main objective of the project of political Hindutva has thus been to construct a Hindu political community. In the mid-1990s, this project partially succeeded when the BJP started attracting votes from sections of OBC communities and, to some extent, from economically less well-off sections. However, it was very clear that this social bloc did not include Dalits. After getting the support of 15 per cent of Dalits in 1999, the BJP slipped to 12 per cent in both the 2004 and 2009 elections (National Election Study, 2004 and 2009, Lokniti-CSDS). While this was electorally debilitating, it was also awkward because in the BJP’s understanding, Dalits belong in the Hindu category.
Over the course of the current elections, the BJP has made serious efforts to improve its performance among Dalit voters. It has allied with state-level Dalit parties wherever possible (for example, with the Republican Party of India (Athavale) in Maharashtra and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar). But its efforts have been much more focused in UP. It is not difficult to understand this emphasis on UP — if the BJP can breach the BSP’s social base among UP’s Dalits, it would overcome a very critical stumbling block. The state’s large and politically active Dalit population makes the BJP’s task very tough. In the past two Lok Sabha elections, its Dalit vote share in UP has hovered around a meagre 5 per cent. To improve on this, the BJP has resorted to a dual strategy.
On the ground, it is reported to be spreading the word that the Congress did not do much for Dalits because of its policy of giving preference to Muslims (‘On Ambedkar day, BJP says UPA favoured Muslims over Dalits’, IE, April 15). This argument seeks to serve many purposes. It seeks to divide the Dalit and the Muslim vote — a bloc that the BSP benefits from. If successful, it will ensure the division of the Dalit vote, and unease among Muslims, who would otherwise have voted for the BSP. Given the fact that in many constituencies in UP, these two communities constitute a sizeable chunk of the electorate, such a division can alter outcomes.
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Besides, this line of argument ensures that Dalits, even if they are disenchanted with the BSP, would not vote for the Congress.
But beyond electoral calculations, this campaign strategy serves the larger purpose of communalising Dalit voters. In most parts of the country, poor Dalits and Muslims share the same spaces — the poorer localities. The communalisation of Dalits would, therefore, mean a possible confrontation whenever sectarian violence occurs. This is what nearly happened during the Mumbai riots in 1993. Such communalisation helps the BJP retain its base among “affected” sections not just for one election but over a period of time. Thus, communalisation becomes a long-term political investment.
The BJP’s second ideological manoeuvre, now more than three decades old, was to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy and present it as being supportive of its Hindutva. This strategy has already been commented on extensively and analysed by many academics (for instance, Hindutva and Dalits — Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis, edited by Anand Teltumbde). Given the iconic status of Ambedkar among Dalits, “proving” that he was favourable or sympathetic to Hindutva can easily convince them to support the Hindutva politics of today.
Ironically, Ambedkar happens to be one of the most trenchant critics of Hindu ideology and practice. But undeterred by that, the BJP has been presenting Ambedkar through the prism of its Hindutva worldview. Ever since the Samajik Samrasta Manch (platform for emotional integration — with Dalits) was founded in the 1980s, RSS activists have busied themselves reworking the intellectual legacy of Ambedkar. This ideological move was not initially matched with political penetration among Dalits. But after a long time, the BJP now appears poised to combine its ideological initiative with political interventions that would eventually communalise sections of Dalits.
The exercise to fit Ambedkar into the ideological milieu of Hindutva often takes two forms. First, since opposition to Muslims is sine qua non for Hindutva, it is argued that Ambedkar shared Hindutva’s concerns about Muslims. This, despite the fact that Ambedkar warns against “the ugly spectacle of gangsterism against gangsterism” and unequivocally states that Hindu raj will “no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country”.
Second, Hindutva suggests that converting to Buddhism is not really a fully-fledged rejection of the Hindu context. For instance, Savarkar, the main source of the BJP’s political Hindutva, somewhat disparagingly commented on Ambedkar’s conversion, asserting that, after all, becoming Buddhist was not a great leap, it was not an exit from the Hindu circle of ideas. This understanding has led the BJP to argue that, by not converting to Islam, Ambedkar ensured “cultural continuity” with the Hindu religio-cultural ethos. The BJP is playing up that assessment when, as opposed to Muslims, it looks on Dalits as “one of us”. Thus, invoking Ambedkar is aimed not only at gaining Dalit votes but at communalising Dalit-Muslim relations in the long run.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune firstname.lastname@example.org