Bahujan politics, known earlier as Dalit politics, is at an interesting juncture, especially in North India. Since the 1980s to 2016 the movement asserted itself largely through the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under the hegemonic influence of the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati combine. Around 2016, it saw the emergence of aggressive youth leaders like Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrashekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh. These youth leaders used the assertive Dalit vocabulary against the “dominant others”, which the BSP employed during its early phase. Over time, the BSP went beyond aggressive language against other sections of society and adopted a partly inclusive discourse, which suited its move to bahujan and sarvajan politics.
Chandrasekhar, who formed the Bhim Army, was imprisoned for his alleged involvement in the Saharanpur and Shabbirpur caste violence cases. His release from jail is being perceived in two ways. Some analysts and political leaders believe that his release is part of the BJP’s plan to gain his support and appease the SC public. This could create sympathy among Dalits and prepare a political climate in which the votes of the Mayawati-led BSP could be divided. Another set of political observers believes that his release will strengthen Mahagathbandhan politics in UP. Chandrashekhar has declared his support for the Mahagathbandhan in opposition to the BJP for the 2019 election. He has also declared his deep respect for Mayawati, calling her his bua. Mayawati spurned his claim to a bua-bhatija relationship and described his release as a BJP strategy.
While Mayawati is trying to sideline Chandrashekhar, the Bhim Army is expanding its activities. For example, after Yogi Adityanath’s recent statement claiming Hanuman was a Dalit, Chandrashekhar organised a massive rally in Muzzafarnagar and appealed to Dalits to appropriate Hanuman temples. He also demanded that Dalit priests be appointed at such temples.
What is Chandrashekhar’s political significance for Dalit-Bahujan politics? How is the movement going to influence the 2019 election? Chandrashekhar has emerged as an icon of Dalit protest among Bahujan youth. He seems to be particularly influential in parts of western UP. But the larger section of Dalits is still, electorally, with Mayawati and the BSP despite many complaints against the party. If Chandrashekhar works for the Mahgathbandhan in 2019, it may strengthen his image as a bahujan youth icon. But if he works for the BJP directly or indirectly, it may diminish his symbolic power.
Chandrashekhar earlier called himself Chandrashekhar Ravan. He recently distanced himself from the appellation. Some may see this move as his becoming softer towards Hindutva. But this could also be a strategy to gain more acceptability among the SCs, among whom a large section identifies with the Hindu cultural and religious ethos.
There may be another possibility: Chandrashekhar may join the Congress or, like Jignesh Mevani, seek their active support and put his weight behind the Mahagathbandhan. It is known that Chandrashekhar has a close relationship with Congress leader Imran Masood, the party’s UP vice-president. Masood supported Chandrashekhar’s campaign in the region. Recently, Chandrashekhar announced his closeness to Masood. “I can give my blood for Imran and take anyone’s blood for him,” he said.
There are as yet many questions waiting to be answered, many questions that lie in the womb of political possibilities. But one thing is clear: Mayawati needs to handle the emergence of Dalit-Bahujan youth leaders cautiously. She needs either to absorb them in the BSP’s rubric of the bahujan movement or try to neutralise their political impact through her own political campaigns in the future.