Like an initiatory ritual marking the onset of battle, Parkash Singh Badal was reportedly seen hobnobbing with the leadership of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Flanked by his veritable charm and perspicacity, the Gandalf of coalition politics in the state is firming up the pre-poll formations for times uncertain, against friends and foes alike. His estranged nephew Manpreet who, like an oedipal prince, reneged against the very order that gave him a platform and voice, is angling to lure the Dalit votes in a bid to carve the much vaunted Sanjha Morcha, a ménage-à-trois of the underdogs.
Behind these overtures lies hidden is the fact that probably for the first time ever since 1989 when the BSP opened its account in Punjab, the minority of the oppressed and downtrodden can aspire to improve their skewed ratio of representation in the legislature. It is also a monumental opportunity to establish a real third-front in Punjab that would pulverize the barriers of caste and class, providing a peoples’ alternative against the hegemony of the ruling autarchies.
In the last few years, the state has witnessed an outpouring of angst by the Dalit community. Tormented by the highhandedness of the kleptocracy, incensed further by the discriminatory attitude of an institutionalized clergy that gives them a stepchild treatment, these voices from the underbelly are dying to be heard. In a society overburdened with past and a misplaced sense of history, the parallel narrative of Dalit consciousness was tacitly side-lined under the post-traumatic stress of the partition, the green revolution and terrorism. But the sigh has become a wail now.
More by chance rather than merit, BSP stands in a unique position to capitalize on this wave of assertion. Being a statist party that had gathered its initial support from a burgeoning middle-class among the scheduled castes incentivized by the generous provisions of the constitution, it has successively and unabashedly moved away from idealism to realpolitik. If one were to draw a comparison, BSP’s current standing amidst the socio-political atmosphere of Punjab shows the same pattern that was once visible in UP during the formative years.
From its founding in 1984, the failure of Bahujan alliances with parties like SP during the early 90s to the formation of a coalition government with a Brahmin-dominated BJP in 1995, the party had graduated from anti-Manuvadi isolationism to adopt a more ambitious, pragmatic and tactically-inclined approach. By 2007, when it staked the claim for a majority government, BSP had also widened its social base by orchestrating a clever scheme of selective distribution of tickets to the representatives of other castes and communities as well. What may have seemed as the marginalisation of the Dalit cause turned out to be a multi-pronged strategy of caste mobilisation. Having realized early on that the ideology of exclusion would stymie the efforts of gaining political dominance, Kanshi Ram evolved a utilitarian approach of favouring priorities above principles. To minimize the uncertainty that comes with pre-poll alliances, Mayawati de-risked the process by hedging it with a policy of distributing seats to non-Dalits. This hybrid system worked marvellously.
In this context, a polity that has lived in constant denial about the acrimonious caste cleavages in Punjab seems completely unsuitable for pre-poll alliances. What further accentuates the problem is that the Dalits of the state, forming a mammoth 30% share of the population, are also marred by internal strife and sectarianism. The Mazhabi Sikhs and Balmikis are at loggerheads with the Ad-Dharmis, Ravidasias and Ramdasias on the fractious issue of “reservation within reservation”. The religious polarisation induced by the Dera politics, further catalysed by an increasing disillusionment with mainstream Sikhism has also added fuel to the fire.
To offset the prevalent discord, BSP would have to reincarnate its early avatar of a social force that thrived on militant zeal and contrarianism, elevating the collective pain of the subjugated to an altogether transcendental level. Resulting from an absolutism of ideology and belief, the lack of emerging leadership and the centralization of ideas has plagued the party for long. What may seem like an internalized dictatorship is actually the result of a flawed outlook that advocates a hyper-aggressive approach towards empowerment, to intensify the level of the discourse and shatter the social hierarchies. Nonetheless, it is imperative that new ideas and fresh talent is imbued in the party’s state machinery. With the total number of reserved seats in the state up to 34 and BSP’s proclamation of going all-out and alone, this becomes a struggle for the rightful identity. As a boisterous Kanshi Ram once pronounced, “We may not win even a single seat, but we are going to demonstrate our strength”.