Why is Social Justice Politics Falling Apart?
A variety of commentators on Indian politics have defined social justice over the last eight years. Some call the present era one of rising right-wing politics, while others interpret it as an expansion of democracy. To many commentators, the victory of nationalism over economic issues that plague the country and its people defines this period. Despite a wide variety of observations, politics today has indeed left the idea of social justice far behind. The period between 1990 and 2014 was very favourable for those who support social justice.
It is not as if everything in those 24 years helped the Dalits and the backward classes. But, to an extent, no government passed laws that wholly opposed the interests of these communities or the minorities. Even a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power during this period. Yet, after a point, it could not tamper with the basic structure of India’s constitutional scheme. There could be many reasons for this, but the most prominent was the presence of strong leaders from Dalit and backward sections, such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kanshi Ram, Sharad Yadav, Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan.
The second reason was that Vajpayee and LK Advani had spent the early years in an ideological arena framed by Jawaharlal Nehru and his ideas. So, no matter much pressure the Sangh put on them, and regardless of how fiercely communal and casteist they were, it was impossible to pursue that agenda to the hilt. The political aura of great men such as MK Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, AK Gopalan and EMS Namboodiripad applied a brake on the agenda. A third probable factor was that the right-wing Jana Sangh-BJP, though fiercely oriented to upper caste interests, shied away from steps or plans that militate against the backward sections because there were leaders such as Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti in its own camp.
The political timeline completely changed after 2014. Kanshi Ram had passed away in 2006. Lalu Yadav had been sent to jail on corruption charges. Mulayam Singh’s political power and physical strength had weakened, and Mayawati, hindered by the pressure of corruption charges and other factors, could no longer take clear and tough decisions. Akhilesh Yadav may have become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2012 and command the strong support of the people, but his political style is very middle-class. He tried to steer clear of this image in the recent Assembly election, but his efforts began just four months before the election. For the remaining four-and-a-half years, he was nowhere to be seen, not even among other leaders, forget ordinary people.
As a result, the Samajwadi Party appears directionless, which the recent election result makes very apparent. For example, the opposition parties could have taken two significant decisions even after the BJP returned to power in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The central government abolished Article 370 and implemented the Citizenship Amendment Act in the same year. Article 370 was a direct attack on the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, though the region was largely autonomous in name by then. Still the Modi government presented the abolition as if the Muslims of Kashmir were being taught a lesson. It also projected the purpose of Article 370 as prohibiting outsiders (mainly Hindus) from buying land in the valley.
Similarly, the CAA and National Register of Citizens (NRC) were dangerous for any citizen who cannot prove their right to exist here, not just the Muslims. These schemes are particularly onerous for the poor across the board. The most vigorous peaceful protest against the CAA and NRC took place at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and all over Uttar Pradesh. But the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party were utterly silent on them although, since the 1990s, these two parties get most of the votes of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. Not just this. Azam Khan, a founding member of the Samajwadi Party and Member of Parliament (he resigned after winning the recent Assembly election), was arrested and imprisoned on various charges by the Yogi Adityanath government ruling Uttar Pradesh, but the Samajwadi Party did not even consider speaking up for him. Perhaps Akhilesh Yadav believes the public should not get the idea that he or his party sympathises with Muslims.
Similarly, the Samajwadi Party has done nothing against the havoc caused by the state government among the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, especially those leaders and ordinary citizens who protested during the anti-CAA-NRC movement. What is more, Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh was in the thick of this movement, and the state government committed numerous brutal atrocities against the agitators, but Akhilesh Yadav did not reach out to them. Ironically, until a month ago, Azamgarh was Akhilesh Yadav’s parliamentary constituency.
Similarly, farmers all over the country agitated against the three agricultural laws introduced by the Narendra Modi government in summer 2020, but Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) did not go beyond a tweet here or there to mark their opposition. Yes, Akhilesh Yadav did hold a press conference, but other than that, he only showed up on Twitter to support farmers. Could anybody guess that the social base of all three parties consists primarily of farmers and the labourers who depend on agriculture? None of these leaders is making a move since their ideological moorings are completely shaken. Akhilesh, Mayawati and Tejashwi are waiting for the time when the people will reject the BJP and automatically return to them and put them on the throne of power.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1909, Indian diplomat UN Mukherji wrote a book, “Hindus: A Dying Race”. Whatever the veracity of the claims in this book, the Hindu Mahasabha, the former incarnation of the RSS, liked it and it was republished numerous times. Even today, the RSS and BJP are using the lies in this book to expand their political and social footprints. Every single argument and data-point Mukherji cites in this book has been proved wrong. Still, the advocates of social justice in politics refuse to launch a campaign against such narratives.
Why is it that Akhilesh or Tejashwi, who do politics in the name of Ram Manohar Lohia, JP and Karpoori Thakur, have not even launched a protest or agitation along the lines of these leaders? Nor has Mayawati launched any movement on the path Dr Ambedkar laid. The social justice forces are completely depleted and unable to determine their priorities for the future! Yes, the number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe legislators and parliamentarians has not decreased (as seats are reserved for SC and ST candidates in both houses of Parliament), but Dalit-Backward voice in North Indian politics has gone silent. The reason is that there is no longer a leader to represent these sections who challenges the status quo or demands justice or their rights.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.
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