In Uttar Pradesh, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress aims to win over major Dalit sub-castes disenchanted with Mayawati.
A small, weathered Portrait of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar overlooks the entrance to Savita Saroj and Radhe Shyam Passi’s house in Hasua Survan village in Uttar Pradesh (UP). It hangs above a picture of Shiva, a Hindu deity. It has been there for years. It was there when Savita became the village pradhan (chief) in 2000. It was there when the young first-time MP from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi, came calling on 12 October 2004, and spent an entire afternoon at the Passi-dominated village. Ambedkar’s portraits are common in this village, he learnt, with three of every four huts Dalit.
“He sat with them and talked to the village women,” recounts Savita, “There were more women than men, and he refused to sit on the chair we brought him. He said he was here to know our problems and would only know them better if he sat on the ground, like us.” She talks about how Rahul listened patiently and took notes. The government primary village school had just one teacher for 200 students then, and it has four now. Radhe Shyam believes the improvement has something to do with that visit. But a lot more needs to be done. His children now go to private schools because the government school has never been upgraded beyond class V. The village still doesn’t have an anganwadi centre, he says. “The state governments have not done enough,” he concludes.
The visit was a long time ago, when Rahul was just starting out as a politician. This was long before opposition parties accused him of rank political opportunism in visiting Dalit homes—only to ape him later. It was long before the Congress made it its mission to regain power in UP, come 2012. In fact, it was years before 14 April 2010, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary and the day on which Rahul Gandhi flagged off as many as ten Congress Yatras from Ambedkar Nagar, citadel of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Once called Akbarpur, this is the parliamentary constituency that has thrice elected Mayawati to the Lok Sabha. She had it renamed. And now it is aflutter with Congress flags.
Rahul Gandhi’s original aim, as he once said, was simply to visit the homes of the poor, regardless of caste. The poorest huts only happened to be Dalit. All the same, it is visits like these that have given the Congress the courage to take on the BSP in its Dalit bastion. If Mayawati is surprised, she should not be.
HEAD ON CLASH
Allow Mayawati her consternation, though. One of every five people in UP is a Dalit. And the Congress Yatra, one of ten such travelling rallies in the state flagged off from Ambedkar Nagar, is a direct affront to the BSP and its politics, a challenge to her once-uncontested leadership of Dalits in north India. “We plan to oust Mayawati from her seat of power in the next Assembly elections. We plan to make Dalits and all other communities in the state aware of her misrule and save the state from a tyrant,” says Rita Bahuguna Joshi, UP Congress chief, “Corruption and anarchy have halted the development of UP. No wonder Mayawati is uncomfortable with our rath yatra.”
Mayawati’s BSP hasn’t broken into a cold sweat, but it soon might. Signs of its discomfort abound. The rath yatra’s run-up saw much tension between the two parties’ workers. They almost fought over the placement of posters and billboards in the district. The BSP mocked an early set of yatra posters which featured Congress leaders prominently but not Ambedkar. Subsequent Congress posters included not only Ambedkar, but also the party’s late Dalit face Babu Jagjiwan Ram. And then, there were senior leaders exchanging accusations as well. Swami Prasad Maurya, the state cooperative minister of UP and state president of the BSP, said: “The people of the country know the Congress’ conspiracy to keep them ignorant and poor. So, such rath yatras don’t bother us.”
Yet, the BSP planned a counter-agitation, just in case. “We will also organise a movement across the state,” added Maurya, “to expose the Congress and tell the people how the Centre is using the CBI and the Income Tax Department to victimise [Mayawati].” The Congress, the BSP alleges, is devising devious means to disempower the downtrodden while outwardly pledging support.
So, while the Congress launches a drive in its 125th year to mobilise Dalits in its favour, the BSP embarks upon a state-wide drive against the Women’s Reservation Bill, telling its core constituents—Dalits—how the Bill is against their interests.
But then, Dalits are not just Dalits anymore. They too are divided into groups. Or so the Congress observes, hopeful of a chance to play the wedge. Ask Ram Tirath Passi, a career politician in Jagdishpur. Though the name of his party keeps changing, politics is part of his daily routine. At the PWD dak bungalow at Jagdishpur in Amethi, Passi listens to woes of fellow Dalits. Meeting people, discussing their problems and attempting to solve them in his own little way has been part of his life since 1978, when as a young undergraduate at the Ganpat Sai Degree College, he heard Kanshi Ram speak, in Pratapgarh, of a Dalit revolution. After graduation, Passi joined Kanshi Ram—first as part of his social outfit DS4 and later as a full-time activist of Bamcef.
It was from Jagdishpur in 1984 that a young Ram Tirath—not even 30 then—had contested the Assembly polls on a ticket of the newly formed BSP. He lost, but managed to garner over 5,000 votes; and thus did politics become part of his life. “The BSP today is not the BSP I was part of. There is unrest among Dalits over Mayawati’s approach to politics. Her formula of building a ‘sarvjan samaj’ (all-inclusive society) is obviously at the cost of the bahujan samaj (multitudinous society),” says Passi. His contention is that Mayawati’s success so far has come on the back of Dalits, the ‘multitudes’, who owe much of their woes to Brahmins, the fewer-but-influential invitees to her new social coalition. “How can this equation ever make sense to a poor, marginalised Dalit?” he wonders.
As Passi delves deeper into his disenchantment with Mayawati’s politics, another interesting facet emerges. Mayawati has been partial to her own caste, he says. “We did the hard work, but the benefits went to someone else. When Mayawati filled the backlog of vacancies left by the Congress and BJP governments, she filled them with Chamar candidates,” he alleges. Passi has nothing to substantiate this, but such perceptions are enough to cause Mayawati anxiety. The UP Chief Minister herself is of Chamar origin, a Dalit sub-caste that forms the biggest chunk of the state’s Scheduled Caste population (56.3 per cent, by the 2001 Census); Passis, at 16 per cent, are the second largest group of Dalits in the state. Together with Dhobi, Kori and Balmiki groups, they form 87.5 per cent of UP’s Scheduled Caste headcount.
Sub-caste distinctions matter. When PL Punia, the Congress’ Barabanki MP, won his Lok Sabha seat last year, newspapers widely reported how the BSP chief spent over half an hour of a results-assessment meeting just talking about his victory. “I wonder if you know that Punia is not a Chamar. He is a Dhanuk from Haryana,” Mayawati told other party leaders. A former bureaucrat, Punia had been Mayawati’s principal secretary in her three earlier stints as CM in 1995, 1997 and 2002. Differences cropped up between the two during the Taj corridor case. Rahul Gandhi and his advisors on UP pulled of a coup of sorts then, by getting Punia on their side. Having worked with Kanshi Ram and Mayawati closely, he had clear insights into their style of functioning. He remains a crucial strategist on Rahul Gandhi’s 2012 Assembly election plans, and is leading one of the ten yatras in progress.
“Our agenda is clear,” Punia tells Open. “We are going to talk of the Congress’ long-standing commitment to Dalits. We will expose the BSP’s nefarious designs on caste politics and its corruption during different stints. In the last 21 years since the state last had a Congress government, things have gone bad. We will talk about this, exposing Mayawati’s rule. We will also talk of the Congress’ contribution to the nation’s progress—economic development, the infotech and telecom revolutions. People say her first three stints as CM were good because governance was my responsibilty,” he adds in a self-congratulatory tone that also offers a glimpse of what the yatras will be like.
Punia says that it is an irony that the BSP is using Ambedkar’s birthday to organise protest rallies across the state. There is already a sense of unrest among Dalits in the state on Mayawati’s style of governance. Coupled with Rahul Gandhi’s trips to Dalit homes, the Congress just might come up with a winning formula, according to RK Chaudhary, a Passi leader and long-time associate of Kanshi Ram who was thrown out of the BSP in 2001.
Chaudhary was once a minister in Mayawati’s cabinet. “When a leader mingles with the people, he gains,” Chaudhary says. He suggests that the growing influence of Brahmins like Satish Chandra Mishra within the BSP has led to a Dalit rethink about the support Mayawati took so much for granted. Many others agree. The Congress may just be able to pull off its most dramatic victory yet.