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Archis Mohan: Elusive dreams of backward caste unity

Earlier this week, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad suggested that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati should sink their differences and join forces, just as rivals Nitish and he have in Bihar, to put up a united fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP) as well.

Mulayam, who heads the Samajwadi Party (SP) that gets its core support from intermediate castes like Yadavs, responded sarcastically to the proposal, requesting Lalu to bring Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chairperson, by her arm to such an alliance. Mayawati dismissed any possibility of an alliance with SP. She referred to the attack on her by Mulayam supporters in the June of 1995. The Dalit leader asked Lalu whether he would have suggested a reunion if his own sister had been subjected to as humiliating a situation as she was nearly two decades back.

The contradictions between the “M&M” of UP politics and the parties they lead are both personal as well on the ground between the respective caste groups they lead. Similar problems face any putative alliance of Nitish and Lalu and even Ram Vilas Paswan, the third member of the triumvirate that had come to represent the forces of social justice in Bihar, who is currently supping with the BJP more out of insistence from his son Chirag than of his own volition. Nitish represents extremely backward castes like Kurmis and Koeris and had also reached out to the Dalits, while Lalu is the leader of the Yadavs. Yadavs and Kurmis are competing communities and it was this friction that led Nitish and Lalu to part ways in 1994.

But the possibility of political forces representing Dalit and other backward castes (OBCs) interests coming together on a single political stage has been explored a few times, starting from attempts by socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and Dalit leader B R Ambedkar in the mid-1950s. The two leaders, in one of those “what ifs” in the history of Dalit and backward caste movements of India, had mulled an alliance of their respective political parties to fight the dominance of Hindu-educated upper castes. Lohia wrote to Ambedkar on December 10, 1955 requesting him to write for Mankind, a journal Lohia edited, as also address a study camp and attend the foundation conference of the Socialist Party.

The two continued their correspondence over the next one year but failed to meet because of scheduling problems. Some Socialist Party leaders met Ambedkar in September 1956 to start informal discussions about an alliance between Ambedkar’s All India Scheduled Caste Federation and the Socialist Party. Ambedkar died on December 6, 1956 and with him ended any dream that Lohia might have had of a common Dalit and OBC political force. Lohia had wanted an alliance of the disempowered groups of the Indian society – the Dalits, OBCs, tribals, Muslims and women.

That dream saw a minor revival in the elections to the UP Assembly in 1993. The situation then was somewhat similar to what exists in 2014. The elections in UP took place barely a year after the Babri Mosque demolition. The BJP’s support was on the upsurge. The BSP and SP struck an alliance to contest the elections. The BSP supported the government in Lucknow with Mulayam as chief minister. But relations soured by 1995, a reflection of the tension between Dalits and Yadavs on the ground. The government fell in June 1995, culminating in the infamous guest house attack on Mayawati. The two leaders have been sworn enemies ever since.

The two parties also compete for UP’s substantial Muslim votes, the splitting of which assured BJP such a remarkable victory in the Lok Sabha elections. An SP and BSP alliance, as Lalu seemed to argue, will make eminent sense at a time when the BJP secured 42.3 per cent of votes in that state in the Lok Sabha elections. The SP got 22.2 per cent votes while the BSP bagged 19.6 per cent votes. The BSP has decided not to contest by-polls for 12 Assembly seats scheduled for end of this year. Both SP and BSP are political parties primarily strong in a single state, and desperate for an improved showing in the Assembly elections of 2017. It would, however, be a tall task for either to defeat the BJP if they don’t replicate 1993.

In the neighbouring Bihar, Nitish and Lalu face an identical predicament. Lalu’s RJD managed 20.1 per cent of the votes and Nitish-led Janata Dal (United) had 15.8 per cent votes in the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP, on its own, won 29.4 per cent votes while its ally Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party got 6.4 per cent of the votes. Nitish and Lalu hope that their respective vote banks could combine to pose a strong enough challenge to the BJP-led coalition in the by-polls for the 10 Assembly seats on August 21, as also Assembly elections in that state in end-2015.

The challenge for these forces, both in UP and Bihar, is not only to consolidate their support bases but also work to regain those of their supporters who voted for the better days that Narendra Modi promised. Only time will tell whether leaders such as Nitish, Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati overcome their egos and work together to turn the dream of their ideological mentors Ambedkar and Lohia into reality.

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