The Crisis of BSP Politics

—Akhilendra Pratap Singh

T HOUGH IT IS NOW immaterial who broke the marriage between BSP and BJP, the fact is that it was the BJP, contrary to the initial impression it wanted to give, which was not interested in continuing its alliance with the BSP. Despite the bold face put up by the BJP, it was very concerned with the steep decline in its influence in U.P. And the BJP top brass had somehow reached the conclusion that the alliance with BSP would not be of any value in checking the impending loss. Ditching Mayawati was thus a negative tactic: sacrifice the alliance government to drive a wedge between Mulayam and Congress. The BJP policy makers hope that the arrangement may ultimately lead to failure on the part of Congress to rally the crucial SP support behind it.

Be that as it may, the decision to ditch Mayawati proved disastrous for the BSP in an unforeseen way. Not only did it suffer an exodus of a large chunk of MLAs, the BSP is now facing a crisis of defining its identity. In its strongest citadel of U.P., where Mayawati has enjoyed power as Chief Minister for no less than three unfinished terms, the BJP and SP have reached a common understanding: to play the role of twin political poles in U.P., thus sending both BSP and Congress to the margins. Given the political complexity of the state, Congress has not gone for an open alliance with BSP to introduce tripolarity in the state. And thus no alliance was reached between the two parties in the recently concluded Assembly elections in the four Hindi-speaking states. This has also added to the political crisis of BSP.

The crisis of BSP has coincided with the retirement, presumably due to ill health, of the founder, ideologue and supremo of the BSP, Kanshiram. Does the simultaneous decline of BSP signify the end of a particular phase of dalit politics? To seek an answer to this question, let us cast a glance on the whole journey undertaken by Kanshiram and his ‘dalitist’ outfit. This inquiry is necessary because towards the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s, some liberals, dalit thinkers and petty bourgeois ‘radical’ analysts had placed great faith in the Bahujan politics of Kanshiram, hoping it would lead to a social transformation. ‘Bahujan’ was to replace the oppressed class in the Indian context, and was to emerge as a class having organically secular, pluralist and democratic attributes. And Kanshiram was accorded a stature larger than life, lavished with the credit of surpassing Dr. Ambedkar for the feat he had achieved in building a united front of anti-Brahminical forces under BSP. Then, how did things go wrong?

The BSP was born out of the womb of BAMCEF, an organisation formed during the decade of ’70s. The latter half of ’60s and early ’70s was a period of great mass upsurge, people’s struggles and even armed movements. Right from workers and employees to peasants, agrarian labourers, student-youth and even police and PAC in UP, all came out on the streets against Congress rule. While on the one hand our Party initiated an armed struggle to capture political power, in the arena of parliamentary politics, on the other hand, Lohia was busy mobilising anti-Congress forces in a united front. A scenario conducive to radical change was in the making. In those days, a dalit movement too was on the rise in Maharashtra, which gave birth to a radical Ambedkarite organisation, Dalit Panthers, in 1972. However, Kanshiram, the protagonist of so-called Bahujan vision, rejected this organisation as the brainchild of left Brahminists, and formed the Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). He advised the employees to stay away from movements and proclaimed that the orientation of BAMCEF was “to give back to the society”. And from the very beginning he has been a frozen anti-communist. At a time when the poor people including dalits were associating themselves with the Communist stream in a new way, Kanshiram slandered communists as “green snakes hidden in green grass”. It is this anti-communist obstinacy of Kanshiram that later led the BSP to connive with forces like the Ranvir Sena in Bihar.

This non-movemental, grassrootist kind of plank restrained Kanshiram from participating in the democratic struggle against Emergency. On the other hand, people like Jagjivan Ram, whom he termed as the representative of chamcha (lackey) politics among dalits born out of the “Poona Pact”, played a role in mobilising opposition against Indira Gandhi. It was only after Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980 that Kanshiram entered electoral politics, where he later excelled in making pragmatic calculations. On 6 December 1981 he formed Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and under its banner, contested elections in Haryana and Delhi. The favourable response in this limited political exercise led him to form the Bahujan Samaj Party on 14 April 1984.

In 1982, Kanshiram shot into fame by leading a “Denunciation of Poona Pact” programme held in Poona on 24 September, on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Pact. It is said that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to cancel her programme of celebrating the Pact, despite the fact that, as Kanshiram suggests, all the leaders of the Mahar community that was earlier solidly behind Ambedkar, had welcomed this celebration. In the words of Kanshiram, the fight against “the Chamcha Age was launched at Poona, on 24 September 1982”. It here that Kanshiram “realised that as a result of the Poona Pact, our right to vote remained and right to elect our genuine representatives was lost. That was the main reason that our genuine representative, Baba Sabeb Ambedkar lost in 1952 from Bombay and in 1954 from Bhandara.”

Concluded on 24 September 1932, Poona Pact had stipulated that “There shall be seats reserved for the Depressed Classes (read scheduled castes and tribes) out of general electorate seats in the provincial legislatures and the Central Legislature.” It had also stipulated that there would be a primary election for their representation, i.e., the members of Depressed Classes will elect their own representative to fight the elections. But the later system of choosing a representative of Depressed Classes was to continue only for 10 years, whereas reserved seats for the Depressed Classes in the Provincial and Central Legislatures “was to continue until determined otherwise by mutual agreement between the communities concerned in this settlement”. The Poona Pact also noted that “In every province, out of the educational grant an adequate sum shall be ear-marked for providing educational facilities to the members of Depressed Classes”.

Kanshiram recalled that “the Brahminicals of that time, managed to defeat Dr Ambedkar through their representatives in 1952 in Bombay and in 1954 in Bhandara. These defeats demoralised his followers. Congress taunted him and later on his followers, by pointing to the fact that most of the Reserved Seats for SC/STs were won by the Congress.” And, in the words of Ambedkar, “Dalit representatives elected from reserved seats open their mouths in the Parliament only when they have to yawn”. However, Kanshiram also recognised the fact that at present the more Brahminical BJP asserts that they have more SC/ST elected representatives than the less Brahminical Congress.

In fact, how successful was Kanshiram in his fight against the "Chamcha Age"? The BSP earned national recognition by 1990. Starting from Punjab, it spread not only to most of the Hindi-speaking states, (it was only in Bihar where we checked its advance), it also spread to Andhra in the south. Though BSP could not maintain its bases in Punjab and disintegrated in Andhra even before taking off, it succeeded in building a stable base among dalits, in particular chamars, in U.P. It secured 4.5 percent votes at the national level. Compared to this electoral performance, some people observe that organisations formed by Ambedkar like the Indian Labour Party, the Schedules Caste Federation and the Republican Party could never gain a matching success. (Though it is absurd to compare the political challenges faced by Ambedkar in opposing the Congress of the Gandhi-Nehru era with today’s situation. Moreover, Kanshiram’s political gains are the product of a rightist pragmatic politics whereas Ambedkar’s political stand represented his radical socio-economic thought). In fact the BSP always tried to grow into a party of the bourgeois-landlord ruling classes based on the dalit elite, and most of the factors behind its success were never part of dalit politics during Ambedkar’s time.

But the roots of the BSP’s present crisis also lie in the contradictions inherent in the political project guided by Bahujan theory. For Kanshiram, from the very beginning of his political journey, Bahujan theory meant the formation of a united front of dalit and backward kulaks, rallying the minority community behind it. This is indicated by the name BAMCEF. Notably, the BSP had been active in the beginning of the 80s in political mobilisation over the Mandal issue. With this united front, BSP could to a great extent defeat “Chamcha” candidates and get the “genuine” representatives of the SC community elected under its banner. But the moot question was: within the boundaries of present bourgeois parliamentary politics, can such a united front be made stable under dalit leadership, on the basis of a so-called “pocketed” dalit vote bank? Without probing deep into this, the BSP went along this practice till the mid-90s. It suffered from periodic crises and failed to grow enough to stake a claim to political power. Ultimately this led Bahujan theorists to their height of opportunism – to arrive at a ‘Sarvajan’ theory – which enabled the party to embrace even Brahminical social forces, against whom Ambedkar had aspired for a “revolt”!

Apart from other things, this practice had rendered an artificially inflated BSP quite fragile. As a consequence of the recent disintegration, even the power brokers from the Dalit castes, except Chamars, are shifting away from BSP. And in face of this unprecedented crisis, Kanshiram is lying in hospital and Mayawati is facing corruption charges in the Taj Corridor project case. The ranks of BSP are demoralised. This scenario calls for rethinking by every radical stream of dalit politics. A significant agenda is to extricate dalit political discourse from the periphery of the Poona Pact, whether for or against. The politics of participation has to be linked with the struggle for democratisation of state and society. As Ambedkar said, “Despotism does not cease to be despotism because it is elective. Nor does despotism become agreeable because the Despots belong to our own kindred. To make it subject to election is no guarantee against despotism.”