Dalit politics in Bihar is looking for a “master key” to open the door of democracy. In a village in south Bihar, an elderly Dalit posed a question with this striking metaphor. “Darwaje ki chaabi na jaane kisne gahre taalaab me phenk di, ab hum dhoondhe kaise? (We don’t know who has thrown the key to the door into a deep pond. Now, how do we find it?)” If we look for the answer to his question in the teachings of Dalit renaissance gurus and leaders such as Kabir, Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, we find that they all advise that gurus, gyani and leaders may help the community and lead it out of darkness.
In this election, Dalits of Bihar, who constitute around 16 per cent of its population, are without a towering leader like Ram Vilas Paswan. The lack of a charismatic leader may be a handicap for marginal communities in their fight to attain social dignity and acquire share in the democratic power, but sometimes it may work as a blessing, which may help them to democratise their own politics. A politics dependent on a leader sometimes becomes vertical and pyramidical. In its absence, ideology (vani or shabad) may show them the way.
Paswan was certainly a towering Dalit leader, who emerged in post-1970s Bihar. In this election, Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) is making an attempt to fill that space, but he has a long way to go. Chirag Paswan has also staked claim to his father’s political legacy. He has gained a certain amount of acceptability among the Dusadh, one of the major Dalit castes in Bihar, but he still has to mobilise the support of over 20 Dalit castes in Bihar. With Dalit leaders vying for the support of their community, who are also weighing and judging them as potential leaders, this election might be a crucial transitory phase in the state’s Dalit politics.
The memories of Dalit suffering and the struggles against such suffering are one of the important constituents of the everyday ideology of Dalits in Bihar. Added to it is the desire for a better and more dignified present and future. Both will shape how they express their electoral choice in this assembly election. The need for a dignified survival is the main ideological element of their democratic desires and may take them beyond their caste bias, at least at some moments. Subaltern communities may also get allured by various immediate gains and benefits offered by politicians and political parties, but this is a compulsion of their existence.
The unified Dalit vote may be a myth in this election in Bihar. They may move horizontally in the absence of tall leaders towards political parties which can provide them space and representation. In spite of Manjhi’s support to the NDA, a section of Dalit voters may be drawn to the RJD and some may choose the CPI (ML). It is interesting to observe that in spite of various efforts by JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar, in a section of Mahadalit communities and especially among Dalit women, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys much admiration. Policies such as Ujjwala Yojana and Jan Dhan Yojana, in which Rs 500 reached their bank accounts, make them believe that Modi is working to provide them a dignified life and alleviate their terrible hardship. Such existential requirements of dignity may lead them to various political groups. No doubt, Dalit votes will become fragmented but, in this process, they may also try and find new options for their empowerment.
The Bihar assembly election may have various implications for the long-term Dalit politics in the state. It indicates a transition which may yield a new leader. It may also bring a shift in the nature of Dalit politics, from vertical and pyramidical to horizontal. It may also be that Dalit voters in Bihar go on to refuse the notion of one charismatic leader. This election may provide them multiple political options to carve out a dignified future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 5, 2020 under the title ‘The winner is: ‘Contest and a test’. The writer is director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad
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