At the Hathras tehsil kachheri (courts), some Jatav lawyers are having a cup of tea at the end of the day’s work, discussing the prospects of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly polls. Their favourite scenario is that the party wins over 60 seats, the assembly is hung, and both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-led coalition offer BSP supremo Mayawati the chief ministerial crown and the support of their MLAs.
So, what do they think of the new political party floated by the 34-year-old Dalit icon Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”, the Azad Samaj Party-Kanshiram (ASP-K), which is contesting elections for the first time?
“We all admire Chandrashekhar Azad,” says Sunder Singh. “We believe he’ll play a big role in Dalit politics, but that’s in the future. We are willing to help him but….” Jagdish Prasad interrupts him, “It would have been better if he had strengthened the Bhim Army, made it a sort of RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] for the BSP. The BSP organisation needs to be ideologically strengthened, but a competing party doesn’t help the Dalit cause.”
If Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideals were the inspiration for the ASP-K, its founders believe they are following in the footsteps of Kanshiram, the founder of the BSP, which, they say, has been “corrupted” by Mayawati.
Jatavs Are Still Loyal to Mayawati
Dr Mohammad Aqib, the ASP-K’s national secretary and a member of its Core Committee, says: “Our goal, like Kanshiram’s, is vyavastha badalna (changing the system), aarthik parivartan (economic transformation) and saamajik parivartan (social transformation).”
The ASP-K is contesting over 50 seats (even its office-bearers are hard-put to name a figure) in the ongoing assembly elections. It has even teamed up with 35 obscure smaller political outfits, after its leader failed to convince SP chief Akhilesh Yadav to give his party more than two seats if he joined the SP-led alliance. And Chandrashekhar Azad has thrown himself with great vigour into a high-profile contest against UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in the Gorakhpur city assembly seat.
The Jatavs – the BSP’s mainstay – constitute 18 per cent of UP’s population; the other Dalit communities together add up to another 3.1 per cent, most of whom are in the BJP camp.
In these elections, travelling through western UP, it was clear that the Jatavs still remain entirely loyal to Mayawati’s BSP. The refrain in the villages is the same: “it does not matter whether Mayawati wins or loses, it is our farz (duty) to vote for her. Our votes are only counted in the BSP. Even if we vote for another party, it will be assumed it went to the BSP.” And while both educated and uneducated Jatavs are voting en masse for the BSP, it is only the educated who express an interest in Chandrashekhar Azad’s future.
A Slew of Opinions
Indeed, Chandrashekhar Azad’s ASP-K is being regarded both with suspicion and hope in UP.
Die-hard members – and supporters – of the BSP believe that the fledgling ASP-K will only cut into its 18 per cent-odd core vote that comes from the Jatav community and damage the BSP, without gaining much itself.
The youthful adherents of the ASP-K, on the other hand, believe that Chandrashekhar Azad represents the future of the Dalits, especially the educated among them. However, some of them say that perhaps the ASP-K should not have contested the elections this time, and that they will be watching the BSP’s electoral performance in the ongoing assembly elections very closely.
Why Muslims Are Hopeful
But it isn’t just the Dalit youth who are watching the progress of the ASP-K closely: Muslim youth, both educated and not so educated, are following the activities of the party closely. If for the Dalits, the gradual decline of the BSP is making them look for an alternative, Muslims, too, are looking for an alternate platform where their numbers will count and their voices will be heard.
In the village of Bhainsi, close to Khatauli, in Muzaffarnagar district, two Muslim youths, Shoaib Ansari and Burha Mansoori, first mention the ASP-K to me. For a while, they say, they even worked for the party in the area but left because of “personality differences”. But nevertheless, they said, they are watching the party’s progress with great interest.
“The new generation of Dalits supports Chandrashekhar Azad – the rest are with Mayawati,” Mansoori said. But both men say they are sure that the ASP-K will grow and gradually, Muslims will move to it. “Even in these elections, the party has given 40 per cent of its tickets to Muslims.”
They say they know that the party will not do well at all in these elections but it is a model that has potential.
When I ask Mansoori and Ansari what they think of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, they say they admire him hugely because at a time when even politicians sympathetic to their community hesitate to utter the word “Muslim” in public, he speaks up openly for the community. I then ask them to imagine a hypothetical moment when both the AIMIM and the ASP-K begin to do well in UP, and which party would they then opt for. The ASP-K, of course, they say in chorus, because it is a UP party.
'Success Would Be at BSP's Expense'
Sandeep Kumar, a Jatav youth, also lives in Bhainsi. After graduating from Meerut College, he has cleared the first round of the Railways’ entrance examination, for which the second round has been postponed. He is loath to admit that he works for the ASP-K and, instead, says, “ASP-K works for us: it draws attention to the need for education and employment of Dalit youth; to atrocities against Dalits in the villages.”
He then says, “I feel work should have continued on making the Bhim Army bigger and increasing its influence rather than forming a political party and contesting elections.” Any success that the ASP-K might have now, he said, would be at the BSP’s expense.
Dr Satish Prakash, a Dalit scholar who teaches physics at Meerut College, concurs but phrases himself far more strongly: “Chandrashekhar should not have gone to seek a few seats from Akhilesh Yadav. Dalit youth are angry with their ‘hero’ – and in politics when a political leader is viewed as a ‘hero’ and that image for any reason gets muddied, it is very difficult to restore that shining image. Chandrashekhar Azad is no longer going to be the star of the future.” He says Azad made two mistakes – one, creating a political party before the BSP disappeared, and two, announcing a political party without creating an organisation on the ground. “Once the party is a flop, it won’t work again,” Dr Prakash stressed.
Dr Aqib, the ASP-K’s National Secretary, responded to this criticism, saying:
“We realised that if we were to bring about social transformation, we could not do it as an apolitical organisation. Unless you control the levers of power in the thanas, the tehsils, the districts, you can’t help people. Unless you can make their voices heard in the state legislatures and Parliament, you can’t make a difference.”
And he adds, in the estimation of the Bhim Army, that the BSP had run out of ideas – and the Jatavs were still voting for it because of a lack of options. “By 2027, we will be in power in UP,” he asserted.
'The Party to Watch Out For'
If educated Jatavs – whether the lawyers of Hathras, Sandeep Kumar of Bhainsi who is hoping to secure a government job, or Dr Prakash of Meerut – to varying degrees see the entry of the ASP-K into the electoral arena as “premature” and likely to harm the Dalit cause, Muslim young men are looking at it with hope.
And it isn’t just village youths like Shoaib Ansari and Burha Mansoori of Bhainsi: at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), one of the country’s premier educational institutions, students, including two recent PhD graduates involved in student politics, are excited about the advent of the ASP-K.
“At present, we vote for the Samajwadi Party (SP) because we have no choice. It is not a party we need – it is a party that needs us. Maybe Owaisi will grow – he is the only leader willing to speak for Muslims on the streets and in Parliament. But the party to watch out for in UP is Chandrashekhar Azad’s party that will lead a Dalit -Muslim coalition,” says one of them. The others concur.
If that were to actually happen, the ASP-K would begin with a core vote of 38 per cent in UP – the Jatavs’ 18 per cent and the Muslims’ 20 per cent, which no party has at present. In such a set-up, the Muslims will not be taken for granted, as they are by those who have got their votes thus far, the AMU students stressed, because it would be dependent on them to win elections.
Today, the Muslims are all but invisible in UP because the BJP's politics has rendered them without any power at all. And the Jatavs’ 18 per cent vote, too, will be wasted, unless Mayawati – or some other leader – can use it.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)