During the Janata Party government of 1977-1980, came the first possibility of a Dalit (Harijan as the Congress used to say) politician becoming prime minister. Babu Jagjivan Ram’s chance was denied by Charan Singh, a Jat leader of the Bharatiya Lok Dal and a power in the coalition.
Jagjivan Ram, one of the most senior leaders of the Congress and an ‘untouchable’ from Bihar, never became prime minister. It says something about how far India has travelled in the last 40 years that in the presidential election, his daughter Meira Kumar is competing with Ram Nath Kovind as a rival. Two Dalit candidates for the highest post would have been unimaginable even 25 years ago.
Here we are with a certainty of a Dalit president. India has come a long way. How did it happen? It took relentless organising of the Dalit vote by Kanshi Ram, who must be honoured as one of the most influential political leaders of post-Independence India, for us to have come this far.
Make no mistake, if Babasaheb Ambedkar is being honoured by all parties, if Dalit candidates are sought after, it is because the Dalit vote bank is a formidable one. With 18 per cent of the population, Dalits are one of the largest minorities.
Universal adult franchise and secret ballot at elections have proved to be the most transformative elements of the process, which is revolutionising an old hierarchical society into one where all citizens will be equal to each other. We are not there yet, but we can get there.
Many further boundaries remain to be crossed. The most obvious is the position of Muslims as a minority. Whatever the slogan of secularism did, it did not relieve the deep social and economic deprivation of the Muslims, as the Sachar panel report demonstrated. Muslims are not a homogenous community as Dalits are despite the many jatis among them. Muslims in the Hindi heartland are different from those in the South or in the Northeast.
A single Muslim party would be a novel if not a shocking idea to many Indians, not just the Hindutva supporters. The Congress was too possessive of its hold on the Muslim vote to allow such a party to thrive. Nor have any of the other ‘secular’ parties encouraged the consolidation of the Muslim vote. Muslims have had to rely on agents to represent them.
The Dalits learnt long ago not to trust the Congress. Muslims have gone off the Congress since the Babri Masjid demolition. Other parties, the Samajwadi Party, for one, have divided up the Muslim vote among themselves. The Muslim vote is fragmented. But there will never be permanent improvement in the status of Muslims till they have a single party. India needs a Kanshi Ram for Muslims.
The last frontier is women. Their neglect is a matter of everyday scandalous news in the media. The proposal for reservation of seats for women has been safely stored in the deep underground. It is unlikely but a women’s party may yet be the only way to achieve equality.