Dalit politics in Bihar has mainly been a politics of negotiation for a “good deal” from mainstream political parties. The “good deal” meant a good bargain from the parties, either in office or in the opposition, in terms of seats in a pre-poll alliance, and share in the government. In return, the transfer of caste and community votes was promised.
This politics of negotiation in Bihar proceeded from the period that Kanshi Ram diagnosed as the chamcha age of Dalit politics. In the post-Independence decades, Dalit leaders in the Congress and Janata Party got to share power as representatives of a caste or community. Dalit leaders such as Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sundar Das rose from the grass roots to become chief ministers in Bihar. Both Shastri and Das belonged to mainstream national parties.
However, Dalit politicians, who were working in national parties, started to form caste-based parties after the 1980s. The phase of social justice politics in Bihar gave these leaders the capacity and space to float their outfits and, thereby, negotiate better bargains with bigger parties. For instance, Ram Vilas Paswan, who was a leading figure in the anti-Emergency movement and the Janata, founded his own party — the Lok Janshakti Party — in 2000. As Mahadalit politics found resonance in recent years, leaders like Jitan Ram Manjhi, a member of the most marginalised Musahar caste, split from the Janata Dal (United) to form the Hindustani Awam Morcha. However, these parties have not shown any allegiance to ideology — they have effortlessly moved from the NDA to UPA and vice versa to bargain for a better share of seats or ministerial berths. Never have these parties left an alliance or joined one on matters of Dalit empowerment or emancipation.
Unlike in UP, Dalit politics in Bihar continue to be dependent on mainstream parties. The Ambedkarite radical consciousness is weaker in the Dalit politics of Bihar and Dalit assertion at the grass roots continues to be weak. The Naxalite movement, which attracted a large number of landless peasants, was the vehicle of Dalit assertion till the 1980s, but the rise of caste and social justice politics led to its marginalisation. The new middle- and upper-class Dalits wedded the slogan of social justice with reservation and employment. This too weakened the Naxalite and communist mobilisations, which were focussed on the issue of land.
Another feature of Dalit politics in Bihar is that only the numerically stronger groups among the 22 Dalit castes have become influencers in politics. They alone managed to get representation in government. Dalits constitute about 16 per cent of the state’s population. But only the Dusadh, Chamar, Dhobi, Mushahar communities are visible in power politics. The Dusadhs account for 5-6 per cent of the total population of the state and make up 37 per cent of the Dalit population. Chamars are around 6-7 per cent of the state population and form 39 per cent of the total Dalit population. The Mahadalit castes (19 castes) together are around 4-5 per cent of the state population and are 24 per cent of the Dalits. Musahar, the largest politically-mobilised Mahadalit caste, gained a voice during the Lalu Prasad years. Other Mahadalit castes are numerically small and yet to find visibility in electoral politics.
Most of the Dalit leaders of Bihar command support of only their caste and subcaste members. Leaders such as Ram Vilas Paswan, Shyam Rajak and Jitan Ram Manjhi claim that they can transfer votes of their caste. Recently, Rajak, industry minister in the Nitish Kumar government, joined the RJD while Manjhi has moved away from the UPA. Chirag Paswan is putting pressure on the NDA leadership for more seats in the upcoming assembly election. However, previous poll results indicate that these leaders cannot transfer more than 40 per cent of caste votes. At his peak, Ram Vilas Paswan commanded 50 per cent. If these leaders still command political traction, it is because they help the alliance project the perception that it supports the social justice agenda.
These leaders have also failed to disseminate democratic ideals within their communities and behave like feudal leaders, almost copies of leaders of dominant communities and parties. Their failure in creating emancipatory conditions for marginal communities has led to the fragmentation of Dalit votes, which in turn has weakened Dalit assertion in Bihar.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2020 under the title ‘A fragmented vote’. The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
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