Dalit politics in the country has seen the emergence of two new faces recently – Gujarat’s new MLA Jignesh Mevani, and Uttar Pradesh’s Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar "Ravan". The young faces have spelt trouble for Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, as they are appealing to what has for long been her core voter base. In fact, a spooked Mayawati “cautioned” her supporters against the two at an event held to mark her 62nd birthday celebrations last week.
The BSP supremo warned her voters against falling for Mevani at the function. She said that the Gujarat leader may have won his Assembly seat as an Independent, but Dalit votes had little to do with it.
After being elected as MLA from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani has been actively visiting other states. Photo: PTI
According to Mayawati, Mevani owed his victory to the Congress’ support, and his recent visits across the country, too, were being stage-managed by the grand old party, which wished to rake in Dalit votes in this manner.
Dalits account for about 20 per cent of India's voters. While earlier they favoured the Congress, there was a massive shift in the voting pattern after 1980, engineered mainly by BSP founder Kanshi Ram.
Kanshi Ram turned Dalit ideology into a movement, from which the Bahujan Samaj Party was born, which forever changed the politics of North India. The '80s also saw Mayawati’s emergence on the political scene, brought in by Kanshi Ram.
The Bahujan edge
The fruit of Kanshi Ram’s labour, BSP, went on to win power in North India’s most populous state. Mayawati first became the chief minister of UP in 1995. Gradually, she changed her social engineering formula from “bahujan” (Dalits) to “sarvjan”, incorporating upper castes too.
Mayawati first became the chief minister of UP in 1995. Photo: PTI
The strategy paid rich dividends in 2007, sweeping her into power, but she lost the next Assembly polls in 2012. The slide continued, with the BSP failing to win a single seat in the 2014 General Elections. In 2017 state polls, too, the BJP demolished all dreams of a BSP return to power, and the party was relegated to the third spot in the state.
New wave, a threat to Mayawati?
While Jignesh Mevani is a newly elected MLA from Gujarat, as a Dalit face he is already playing an active role in other states too, taking up the same anti-feudal, anti-caste stance on which Mayawati built her political career.
Recently, at his rally in Delhi, Mevani asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to choose between the Constitution of India and the Manusmriti. Mayawati may see this move as hijacking of her agenda and a possible challenge.
Mevani is vocal, young and knows how to use social media to his advantage. His popularity among the Dalit youth is increasing, as evident from the big crowds at his rallies in Gujarat, Delhi and Maharashtra — this has made the BSP chief insecure.
When Ravan hits home
On Mayawati’s home turf is Chandrashekhar Ravan, who belongs to the same caste — of Jatavs — as her. He has set up a Dalit collective, Bhim Sena, in Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur. The body has risen to prominence rapidly since 2016 and, in a short while, Ravan has become a popular Dalit leader.
Chandrashekhar Azaad 'Ravan' is in jail over the Saharanpur violence. Photo: Facebook/Bhim Army
Western UP has, for long, been regarded as Mayawati’s citadel. Uttar Pradesh has around 19 per cent Dalit voters, of which Jatavs make up about 16 per cent. A visible symbol of Ravan mobilising the Dalit youth of Saharanpur was a board proclaiming “The Great Chamar” that came up in a village in the area. Within months of the Yogi Adityanath government being sworn in, Saharanpur’s Shabbirpur village witnessed clashes between Rajputs and Dalits, in which several houses were burnt.
Ravan was arrested for the violence, and has been in jail since.
While Mayawati talks of Shabbirpur, she has so far kept mum on Chandrashekhar, and political observers read this as political insecurity.
Dalit aides to Congress?
Mevani’s connect with the Congress is well-known. If the party manages to win the support of Chandrashekhar, too, it can eat into Mayawati’s electoral pie — with any such move it will script history in the country’s Dalit politics.
The Congress is anchoring hopes of a return to power with a backward caste-Dalit-Muslim alliance. While its success or failure will be apparent only in 2019, the possibility is enough to give sleepless nights to the supremo of the party founded by Kanshi Ram and propped up by Dalit voters for decades.