Tuesday, May 17, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Dalits & Congress



Dalits & Congress


On the shift in the process of Dalit empowerment and the Congress'
response to the challenge to its hegemony.

THE question of uplifting and empowering the weaker sections of Indian
society has generated multidimensional discussions right through the
evolution of the nation and given rise to a variety of proposals that
have delineated diverse paths to their socio-political emancipation.
Starting with the debates leading to the country's Independence, such
as the Round Table Conference, to the post-Independence Constituent
Assembly debates that helped frame the Indian Constitution to
questions in independent India about positive discrimination and
affirmative action, this process has moved on, albeit in fits and

A major point of discussion vis-a-vis Dalits, the most oppressed
section of Indian society, during the Round Table and later during the
Constituent Assembly debates related to the issue of the kind of
franchise that they would have in independent India.

The debates involved contentious streams, including the one put forth
by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who was the Chairman of the drafting committee of
the Indian Constitution, seeking separate representation to Dalits on
the basis of the idea of positive discrimination. His arguments in
favour of this stressed on the low caste identity of Dalits as
distinct from caste Hindus. Mahatma Gandhi, on the contrary, rooted
unequivocally in favour of universal adult franchise to all in one go.

Gandhi's arguments emphasised the idea that only universal adult
suffrage would give Dalits and other backward sections of society a
powerful democratic and political instrument that would help them
obtain the dignity they deserved in society, as also their share in
political power. India's political and administrative history in the
following years consistently underscored a mix and match of Gandhi's
"all one" vision and Ambedkar's idea of positive discrimination.

A number of movements and initiatives have advanced Dalit empowerment
in different parts of the country in the six decades of Independence
and almost all of them have sought to use suffrage as an important
democratic and political instrument. For approximately three decades
since Independence, the political hegemony in this process remained
with the Congress, which was also the ruling party during this period.
However, the process itself gained greater momentum since the
mid-1980s, and along with it acquired significant changes in terms of
qualitative dimensions. This was most marked in two States in the
Hindi heartland, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This acceleration witnessed
a greater assertion by the Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC)
communities in the social and political processes, giving rise to
distinctive organisational entities that championed the cause of Dalit
and OBC assertive politics.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), built up under the leadership of Kanshi
Ram and Mayawati, emerged as the biggest player in the genre of Dalit
assertive politics by emerging as a strong force in the country's most
populous State, Uttar Pradesh. Other forces such as the Samajwadi
Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh and the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and
the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar too emerged with varying
degrees of reach among Dalit and OBC communities. With this collapsed
the Congress' political hegemony over the process of Dalit

Developmental State and the Dalit Question addresses this qualitative
shift in the process of Dalit empowerment and how the Congress itself
responded to this challenge to its political hegemony, particularly in
Madhya Pradesh, yet another Hindi heartland State. In fact, the
sub-title of the book, "In Madhya Pradesh; Congress Response", makes
this focus amply clear. While other Hindi heartland States witnessed
the rise to power of parties practising Dalit-OBC assertive politics
since the early 1990s itself, the Congress was able to stave off their
challenge in Madhya Pradesh. In 2003, the party did lose power but it
gave way only to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the second largest
mainstream party in the country, and not to any of the caste assertive
political challengers.

But despite this focus, the volume is not a mere political narrative.
Thematically, it combines a historical-ideological discussion of Dalit
empowerment issues; how it reflected in the arena of governance,
especially through programmes aimed at social inclusion and economic
empowerment; how the limitations of these programmes reflected at the
societal level leading to the rapid growth of Dalit assertive
organisations; the political, ideological and practical limitations of
insular caste assertive politics; and finally a review (perhaps better
termed as an umpteenth relook) of the positive
discrimination-affirmative action concepts along with the delineation
of the possible contours of Dalit empowerment initiatives for the
future, particularly in the context of globalisation and the recently
oft-repeated bon mot of "private-public" participation.

Sudha Pai's academic interests and track record do help in taking this
related and yet complex discourse forward. Her earlier works such as
Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Revolution: The BSP in Uttar
Pradesh (2002); Interrogating Social Capital: The Indian Experience
(2005; edited with D. Bhattacharyya, Bishnu Mohapatra and Niraja
Jayal); and Political Process in Uttar Pradesh: Identity, Economic
Reforms and Governance (edited; 2007) had addressed issues relating to
the politics of caste and communal assertion, questions of development
in Third World societies, globalisation and governance. The discourse
is taken forward through 10 chapters divided into four broad sections
in Developmental State and the Dalit Question.

At the level of discussions relating to real politic, the book
highlights how the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, under the leadership of
Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, responded to and withstood the
political and organisational challenges thrown by the votaries of
Dalit assertive politics, particularly the BSP, in the 10 years
between 1993 and 2003. The political and administrative mechanisms
that Digvijay Singh and his government employed, such as formulating a
land reforms agenda and the efforts to implement it, are dealt with in
some detail. Sudha Pai certainly finds great merit in this exercise,
though Digvijay Singh and the Congress were not able to make much
political capital out of the land reforms initiatives that had come up
in the latter part of his second term as Chief Minister.


Central to this appreciation is the Bhopal Document prepared in
January 2002 at a conference held in the State capital under the aegis
of the Digvijay Singh government. Sudha Pai suggests that this
conference was a historic one that led to the formulation of a new
model of development with several significant qualitative nuances. To
start with, the author is of the view that it attempted to mobilise
Dalits and tribal people and raise their standards of living by
helping them chart new paths in economic empowerment through their own
initiatives aided and helped by the state. It is suggested that this
new Dalit agenda constituted an alternative strategy at gaining Dalit
and tribal support through state-sponsored economic upliftment
programmes that sought to address the increasing privatisation and
liberalisation of the economy through private-public participation.


DIGVIJAY SINGH, FORMER Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh,
addressing the National Conference of Dalits at Jantar Mantar in New
Delhi in December 2006.

At a more involved level, the argument questions the limitations of a
model of state-led development, which seeks to use political power by
the enlightened elite to bring in changes from above for weaker
sections of society. Furthermore, there is the contention that the
Bhopal Document looked forward from concepts such as Positive
Discrimination and Affirmation Action.

Sudha Pai writes: "The BD (Bhopal Document) has significance for the
Indian democracy beyond its immediate political impact. Unlike
documents in the past it is not merely a list of new policies for
Dalits/tribals to be provided by the state. It introspects upon larger
issues such as the relationship between caste and Indian democracy,
and whether without removing this hierarchical and oppressive
institution India can become a substantive and not merely a procedural

"Yet at the same time it recognises that in the course of progress
towards this goal, a balance is required between the need for
maintaining the universal values of democracy and the specific
discourse of caste. Too much stress on caste question can lead to
differences with groups who could be allies in the democratisation of
civil society."

According to the author, two important components of the programme
that were developed on the basis of the Bhopal declaration are land
distribution and supplier diversity (SD). Though SD was essentially
advanced as an administrative initiative during the last financial
year (2002-03) of Digvijay Singh's second term, Sudha Pai observes
that it has greater political and ideological value in the way it was
conceived and implemented. SD stressed the need for the introduction
of policies of "diversity" that facilitated suppliership and
dealership in the field of business and industry for Dalits in
government and private sectors. This apparently had the potential to
develop, over time, sections of Dalit and backward communities who
have relatively better entrepreneurial abilities. This in turn, it is
argued, will help bring down and ultimately remove the marginalisation
of these disadvantaged sections from the economic mainstream.

In Sudha Pai's view, this new development initiative is all the more
significant in the context of globalisation and the increasing role of
the private sector in the socio-economic life of the country. The
author is also of the view that sections of the bureaucracy (in the
Digvijay Singh regime) were conscientious carriers of the Dalit
empowerment agenda. She argues that land distribution to Dalits and
the tribal people as well as help from the government to make them
retain their hold over the allotted land is required to make SD really
effective on the ground.

Obviously, only such a concrete combination between idea and
implementation can impart the status of a real path-breaker to this
new concept in Dalit empowerment. Notably, the programmes that have
come up after the Bhopal Declaration have not been followed up
systematically either in Madhya Pradesh or in other parts of the

Given the manner in which political forces, including avid advocates
of Dalit assertive politics, are grappling with governance and the
challenge of adapting Dalit empowerment to changing times, the Bhopal
declaration and Sudha Pai's delineation and analysis of the same could
well be the trigger for a comprehensive debate, which could throw up
more concrete ideas in this direction, adding, deleting or altering
some of the tenets of the Bhopal Declaration.


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